How Dogs are Like Humans

A thought-provoking and interesting piece in The New York Times by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, on how dogs are like humans in their thought processes. By teaching dogs to sit still in MRI machines, they were able to trace neurobiological evidence of emotions in dogs which are akin to the ones we experience:

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.

With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

This is truly fascinating.

I have placed Gregory Berns’s upcoming book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, into my Amazon queue.

The Science of Disgust

This is a very interesting Q&A about the science of disgust. What happens, exactly, when we feel disgust? In the interview, Daniel Kelly (an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University) explains in his new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, that it’s more than just a physical sensation…

Two questions and answers which caught my attention:

Do we have the ability to change the things we feel disgusted by?

People don’t exactly know how this works, but acute exposure to something can have the effect of decreasing our feeling of disgust toward it. For example, if you go to medical school, you have to deal with corpses a lot because you’re learning human anatomy. As a result, your sensitivity to death-related solicitors [i.e. things] drops off a little. The key part of this, however, is that it is only for death-related disgust solicitors that the sensitivity decreases. Another example is that over time, mothers become less disgusted by the dirty diapers of their own child, but they remain disgusted by the dirty diapers of other peoples’ children. But what’s happening there isn’t conscious. It’s automatic. In general, there’s not a lot known about the ways we can deliberately or voluntarily make ourselves not be disgusted by things.

And also:

Can disgust be dangerous?

It’s an indisputable fact at this point that disgust influences a lot of social and moral judgments in a variety of ways. An interesting question is whether or not feelings of disgust should play a part in deliberate decision making. If a large percentage of the population finds some social practice disgusting — like stem cell research or cloning — is that a good reason to think the practice is immoral? I argue that it should not. A practice people are disgusted by may or may not be immoral, but the fact that people are disgusted by it is totally irrelevant to that particular question. We shouldn’t trust disgust to give us reliable information about morality. We know the story of how it evolved and why it varies from one culture to the next. Investing the emotion with moral authority is extremely dubious, and we shouldn’t uncritically trust it.

More here.

Readings: J.D. Salinger, Free Writing, Charles Darwin

Three things I’ve read today, all worth twenty minutes of your time:

1) “An Evening with J.D. Salinger” [Paris Review] – Blair Fuller recounts a very interesting evening with one of his favorite writers, J.D. Salinger. In attendance are Blair’s younger sister, Jill and her husband, Joe:

He [J.D. Salinger] asked us to call him Jerry, then asked some routine questions about what we were doing and why, but with a pleasing sympathetic intensity. He made several comments that put him on our side, the side of people starting out rather than the people settled in to lifelong careers. The conversation warmed, and we found that we could make each other laugh.

But as the evening progresses, things turn for the worse. The narrative in this piece is wonderful — you have to read the entire thing.

2) “No One is Forced to Write for Free” [Anna Tarkov's blog] — the day after the huge AOL purchase of Huffington Post, Anna Tarkov writes an excellent piece about why Huffington Post writers continue to write for free (and why it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be). Great argument:

No, the reality as we all know is that people chose to write on Huffington Post for free. They chose to do it because HuffPo gave them a platform where a lot of eyeballs would potentially see what they wrote. Most people can’t get that kind of visibility on their own blog. Maybe Dan Gillmor can, but I can’t. So if I decide to write on HuffPo for nothing more than attention, then I’m getting paid in a sense, just not in dollars. How is this different than a business buying a billboard on a busy expressway?

I’m curious whether people in other professions feel similarly about exposing their work for free: photographers, artists, etc.

3) “Charles Darwin’s Little Known Psychology Experiment” [Scientific American] – Darwin wasn’t just well-known for advancing his theory of evolution. This is a great read:

In 1872, Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he argued that all humans, and even other animals, show emotion through remarkably similar behaviors. For Darwin, emotion had an evolutionary history that could be traced across cultures and species—an unpopular view at the time. Today, many psychologists agree that certain emotions are universal to all humans, regardless of culture: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness.

(Hat tip: @matthiasrascher)