fMRI is a cutting-edge technique used in human neuroscience – but some dog scientists are getting dogs in the scanner! Dogs were trained to lay in an fMRI scanner and watch pictures of either human faces or inanimate objects. The dog brains were highly activated in a brain area called the midfusiform gyrus, commonly known as the face region. This same region of the brain is activated when humans, sheep, and nonhuman primates view human faces. Essentially, dogs seem to utilize the same brain region we do to analyze the faces of human beings.
Five Border Collies, one Labrador Retriever, and one Golden Retriever participated in an fMRI study where they were trained to lie in the “sphinx position” inside the machine for long enough to record the necessary data. Once in the scanner, the dogs were presented with either 50 inanimate objects or 50 neutral human faces.
When the dogs were viewing the human faces, a brain area called the midfusiform gyrus was significantly more activated than when the dogs were viewing inanimate objects. The midfusiform gyrus has become known as “the face region” because it is also consistently activated in humans, nonhuman primates, and sheep when they are viewing human faces. This research indicates that dogs perceive human faces differently than they perceive everyday objects, similar to how humans process other human faces.
Researchers also found that the caudate, a brain area frequently associated with reward, was more activated when the dogs viewed the pictures of human faces. This could be because they find human beings rewarding? Associate us with things like food? More research is needed before we can say what this means for sure.
Since there were only limited breeds used in this study, future replications are necessary before we can conclude that this finding is generalizable to all dogs. But, it seems the canine brain might be more similar to ours than we once assumed.
Where to find the article: Cuaya L.V., Hernández-Pérez R., & Concha L. (2016). Our Faces in the Dog's Brain: Functional Imaging Reveals Temporal Cortex Activation during Perception of Human Faces. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0149431. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149431