- On August 21, 2017
Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns has done something remarkable with his pioneering MRI studies of the brain across a range of species. Among other things, he’s opened up a pathway to deeper understanding of animals’ internal awareness and perspectives. I’ve also been impressed with his grasp of the ethical and practical significance of his findings for the status and treatment of animals. In a prior book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain (2013), Berns described the Dog Project, a research program that uses functional MRI (fMRI) to explore canine thought and emotion. In this new work, Berns discusses his efforts to explore the brains and internal states of other animal species, with the view that while animals may not be able to take our point of view, we can certainly do more to understand theirs.
Greg, you begin the book by sharing how the dog involved in the raid against Osama Bin Laden drew your attention to the capacity of dogs for higher-level tasks and training. How did you get from there to the idea of training your own dog to sit still for a fMRI scan? And what did you hope to learn or accomplish?
It really started as side-project to the main work I was doing at the time on decision-making in the human brain. When I saw that dogs could be trained to jump out of helicopters I realized they could also be trained to go in an MRI scanner. After that, it was a matter of teaming up with a great dog-trainer and breaking down the elements of the MRI, introducing each one gradually to the dog. Not knowing whether it would work, I started with one of my own dogs, Callie – a terrier whom we had adopted from the Atlanta Humane Society. Initially, I just wanted to see if it was possible to do this. Would Callie enjoy working on this with me? (yes). Would she learn to hold still enough that we could get a peek into the workings of her brain? (yes). From there, the project took off. People and dogs started volunteering and we began holding weekly MRI-training classes. Now, 5 years later, over ninety dogs have learned to do this.
A preoccupation with brain size has given way to a focus on what’s called connectomics. What is connectomics and what does it mean for the study of animals within the framework of comparative neurobiology?
For years, scientists thought that bigger brains meant greater intelligence, but this idea depended on what one considers intelligence. Even brain size has different definitions: absolute size or relative to body size? Instead of focusing on size, an alternative approach has emerged that examines how different parts of the brain are connected to each other. Think of this as the road map by which information flows. By comparing these maps in different species, we can see more clearly the similarities and differences.
Even without fMRI in play, you reacted strongly to the claims of Thomas Nagel and others that we can never really get close to what it would be like to be another species of animal. What would you most like the public to understand about what fMRI means for this goal?
Because nonhuman animals can’t speak, it would seem to be impossible to know what they’re thinking or feeling. But brain imaging, including fMRI, offers a window into the animal mind. When we see the same structures active in a dog’s brain as a human’s brain, we can conclude that similar cognitive processes are occurring. And if the circumstances driving this activity is similar – like seeing a person you like – then we can infer the dog is experiencing something similar.
With the research discussed in this book, you’ve extended your investigations to the minds of animals in the wild. What kinds of things might come of this knowledge and what you have called this ability to “finally get into the animal mind,” especially as it relates to protecting animals better in the future?
With few exceptions, we can’t train wild animals to hold still in the MRI. Instead, we must try to forensically reconstruct their brains from animals who have died. We’ve begun to do this with dolphins who have stranded on beaches, and sea lions who died from eating toxic plankton. By reconstructing the connections between different parts of their brains and figuring out how this relates to their environment, we hope to learn which animals are able to adapt to changing habitats and how to help those who are at risk of becoming extinct.
Most of us take for granted the technology behind fMRI, Greg. But what is it really, how does it work, and what makes it so special?
The ‘f’ stands for ‘functional.’ Conventional MRIs take detailed pictures of the brain and other parts of the body. fMRI is more like a movie. It takes a series of pictures – typically every second or so – of the level of oxygen in each part of the brain. What’s great about this is it doesn’t require any injections or radioactivity. It relies on the body’s own oxygen-carrying molecule: hemoglobin. In a typical fMRI experiment, we show the subject various stimuli and measure which parts of the brain respond. For dogs, this could be a piece of food, a person praising them, a smell, or even a picture on a computer screen.
You’ve gotten to investigate the brains of dogs, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, seals, manatees, coyotes, Tasmanian devils, and even an extinct species, the thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial native to Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. Is there an animal brain you are really hoping to get a closer look at in the future?
I am somewhat biased toward the megafauna – the large mammals – because they are so charismatic and because they are at greatest risk of going extinct in our lifetimes. But I am also very interested in other animals that we might teach to go in the scanner awake for fMRI. This includes pigs, and we have also been seriously considering a giant land tortoise. The goal is to understand animal sentience across a wide range of species.
What are you trying to do with your new initiative, the Brain Ark?
Create a three-dimensional digital archive of the brains of the megafauna before they disappear.
What do you believe are the implications of our stronger understanding of animal sentience for public policy and the treatment of animals?
The more brains I look at, the more similarities I see between humans and other animals. You very quickly realize that we have more in common with each other than differences. But of course humans control the destiny of the planet. Seeing the commonalities other animals share with us, makes us realize that we have a moral obligation to them, too. At least, I hope people will see it that way.