dog_1_wide-74e5f90be37aefc74ad4710d7720bfb7c13d11f4-s40-c85A paw on the leg. A nose nuzzling against your arm. Maybe even a hop onto your lap.

Dogs always seem to know when you’re upset and need extra love, even though they hardly understand a word of what you say. How can that be?

Our four-legged friends have a little patch of their brain devoted to deciphering emotions in human and dog voices, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

And the neural circuitry acts surprisingly like the voice-detection device found in people’s brains. The happier the barks or giggles, the more that brain region lights up. The sadder the growls or whines, the less it responds.

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“It’s the first step to understanding how dogs can be so attuned to their owner’s feelings,” says Attila Andics, a neurobiologist at the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, who led the study.

To find the brain region, Andics and his team first had to accomplish the seemingly impossible: Get 11 pooches to lie motionless inside an MRI brain scanning machine for nearly 10 minutes at a time, all while listening to nearly 200 people and dog noises.

“They are happy volunteers in the scanner — you should just see it! They really are!” Andics tells Shots.

Other researchers have gotten a few dogs to sit still long enough in an MRI machine to analyze their brain activity. But the feat has never been accomplished with so many dogs and for such long periods of time.

“We really have no clue about what’s going on in the dog’s brain,” Andics says. “Now we can start to look at how our best friend looks at us and figure out what makes our alliance and communication with them so strong.”

Back in the late 1990s, Canadian scientists identified a part of the human brain devoted to recognizing people’s voices. The so-called voice area doesn’t process words or sentences. Rather, it figures out all the other information packed into sounds. For instance, who’s the person speaking? How is he feeling? Is she being snarky or serious? Silly or sardonic?

This article continues at npr.org


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