Why dogs became man's best friend? Canines have a specialised region of the brain to recognise faces which helps them pick up human emotions
It may come as no surprise to dog owners, but scientists have proved canines have a specialised region of brain that they use to process faces.Experts used an fMRI scanner to collect the first evidence for a face-selective region in the temporal cortex of dogs.
The find suggests that dogs are hard-wired to recognise faces and may explain why they have come to be man’s best friend.
‘Our findings show that dogs have an innate way to process faces in their brains, a quality that has previously only been well-documented in humans and other primates,’ said Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in the state of Georgia and the senior author of the study.
He explained that having part of the brain dedicated to face processing suggests that this ability is hard-wired through cognitive evolution and may explain the ability of dogs to pick up on even the subtlest of human social cues.
Dr Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory's Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man's best and oldest, friend.
The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation,making lots of new research possible,
In previous studies, this approach has been used to identify the caudate region of the canine brain as a reward centre and how this region of a dog's brain responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of strangers or familiar dogs.
The team used an fMRI scanner to identify how dogs respond to faces compared with everyday objects in the study published in the Peer J journal.
‘Dogs are obviously highly social animals, so it makes sense that they would respond to faces. We wanted to know whether that response is learned or innate,’ Dr Berns said.
Canine participants in the new study were shown static and video images of faces on a screen while in the scanner.
They were trained to pay attention to the screen – a challenging task because dogs do not usually interact with 2D images.
Just six of the eight dogs enrolled in the study were able to hold their gaze for at least 30 seconds on each of the images to make the research possible,
But despite the small sample size, the researchers found a region in the dogs’ temporal lobe responded significantly more to films of human faces than to movies of everyday objects.
This same region responded similarly to still images of human and dog faces, with canines paying less attention to objects than both the faces of humans and dogs.
The researchers have dubbed the canine face-processing region they identified the 'dog face area' or DFA.
Dr Berns explained that if the dogs' response to faces was learned - by associating a human face with food, for example - you would expect to see a response in the reward system of their brains, but that was not the case.
A previous study conducted decades ago using electrophysiology, found several face-selective neurons in sheep.
Daniel Dilks, an Emory assistant professor of psychology said: ‘That study identified only a few face-selective cells and not an entire region of the cortex.’
Humans have at least three face processing regions in the brain, including the fusiform face area, which is associated with distinguishing faces from other objects.
Professor Dilks said: ‘We can predict what parts of your brain are going to be activated when you're looking at faces.
‘This is incredibly reliable across people.’
One hypothesis is that distinguishing faces is important for any social creature.
‘Dogs have been cohabitating with humans for longer than any other animal,’ he said.
‘They are incredibly social, not just with other members of their pack, but across species.
‘Understanding more about canine cognition and perception may tell us more about social cognition and perception in general.’
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