As with people, dogs experience pleasure and happiness when their brain’s reward circuit is activated. This consists of a number of different brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, ventral tegmental area, and substantia nigra – all of which are activated by neurons that communicate using the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Interestingly, the MRI scans revealed that the dogs’ reward circuits were only activated when they heard praise words spoken in a praising intonation, which sparked an increase in dopamine transmission in these key areas. Praise words in a neutral intonation, or neutral words in a praising intonation, did not produce this pleasure response.
Photo by Enikő Kubinyi
In a statement, study co-author Attila Andics explained that this reveals how the canine brain “not only separately analyzes what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning.”
Furthermore, the results of this study suggest that the neural mechanisms required to process language may have evolved much earlier than previously thought, and are therefore not unique to the brains of humans and other primates. As such, Andics claims, “our research sheds new light on the emergence of words during language evolution. What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them.”
Photo by Borbála Ferenczy