Any dog lover or owner can attest to the fact that nothing makes you feel better on a sad day quite like having your furry friend curl up on your lap and lick your tears away. Why are dogs so good at guessing when we need comforting?
Believe it or not, recent research suggests that dogs are actually quite adept at understanding human emotions. According to a study performed by the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, dog’s brains are very responsive to human emotions. The researchers (somehow) managed to get 11 dogs to lay down for an MRI; while the machine scanned the dog’s brains the dogs listened to 10 minute audio samples of other dogs making various noises as well as human voices in an array of expressions and emotions.
Dogs’ brains lit up brilliantly in one section as a response to the noises other dogs were making in the audio; humans have a very similar area in our own brains, and its theorized that many animals share this ability to recognize and analyze the sounds of their own species.
However, scientists noticed that dogs’ brains also lit up when they heard human voices; specifically, a small region located behind the ear would fire neurons at the sound of human voices. In humans, this area is called the “voice area” and plays a critical role in interpreting inflection, emotion, and intent. It’s these neurons that allow us to distinguish when someone is being genuine or sarcastic, angry or joyful, when they speak. For dogs, it seems this area plays largely the same role: the dog can’t understand what’s being said in any meaningful sense, but they can pick up emotional cues from our tone of voice.
And it’s not just that dogs can recognize the sound of different emotions; the neurons cause them to respond in ways similar to human responses.
Dogs can also understand emotion by using what we call context clues, chiefly in terms of syllable length. For example, laughter is a series of short, sharp syllables while weeping or sobbing is a series of long, drawn-out syllables. Dogs can pick up on this difference and know whether you’re happy or sad.
So next time you’re having a rough day and Lassie comes to lay by your side, be sure to thank him; he’s not just looking for attention, he genuinely knows how you’re feeling.