If you heard your mother yelling your name from downstairs, you wouldn’t need to see her to know who was calling for you, right? That’s because humans are equipped with a “voice area” in our brains that helps us differentiate between vocal cues of varying pitch and timbre, associating vocal patterns with specific meanings and individuals. For a long time, scientists thought that this trait was unique to primates, marking a key moment in our evolution that facilitated in our ability to begin crafting complex languages.
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If that’s the case, then what is a voice area doing in our dogs’ brains?
Dogs Know When It’s You, How You Feel
A recent study involving 11 highly trained dogs set out to test how dogs’ brains respond to auditory stimuli. The study found that they are capable of differentiating between happy and sad sounds — as well as the tone of different peoples’ voices — in much the same way as people.
Have you ever been sure that your dog can tell when it is you calling them, and the difference between your happy and angry voice? You were right.
Neuroscientists at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, led by Attila Andics, had to train the subject dogs to sit perfectly still inside an MRI machine with headphones on — no small task — and the machine monitored their brain activity in response to varying sounds. The headphones played sounds like laughing, crying, and a wide range of barks and other noises, while scientists looked at how their brains responded to the varying stimuli. According to the study, the dogs loved every minute of it, especially the part where they were given near constant praise and treats. Later, 22 human subjects were played the same tape, while their brain activity was monitored as well, and the similarities between how their brains responded were clear.
The Adorable Results
In both humans and dogs, hearing happy sounds like a baby’s giggle causes a spike in the primary auditory cortex, whereas unhappy sounds like a man’s cough did not, illustrating our dog’s uncanny ability to decipher the meaning behind different tones. This similarity, the scientists believe, plays a huge part in why the verbal relationship between humans and dogs is so strong and effective.
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This is not to say that you can start having long winded conversations with your dog. The research states that, while our brains respond similarly to vocal cues, 48% of your dog’s auditory brain area responds strongly to environmental sounds, while in humans it merely 3%. This means that people are much more capable of tuning out nonvocal sounds, giving us a huge leg up in focusing in on the specifics of verbal communications.
Now Go Let Your Dog Know How You Feel
So, in many ways, this study has only proved something many of us dog lovers have all known for years — dogs understand how we feel. Even still, it is nice to have conclusive evidence stating that our dog’s reactions genuine, and not just us projecting human-like responses onto them.
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