This month I will be looking at ‘What’s it like to be a dog’ by Gregory Berns first published in 2018. I was quite excited to read this book, I had heard of his pioneering research about training dogs to lay still in MRI machines for us to be able to scan their brains and better understand them, as someone with a background in human psychology and fascinated with neuroscience I thought this would be a great combination of two of my passions!
Background on the author
Gregory Berns, MD, PhD is a Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he directs the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education & Research in Neuroscience. He is also a Professor in the Psychology Department and a founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics.
Dr. Berns specialises in the use of brain imaging technologies to understand human – and now, canine – motivation and decision-making.
Berns is also the co-founder of Dog Star Technologies – a company using neuroscience to enhance the dog-human partnership.
The book itself is quite substantial (just over 300 pages) however the last 40 or so are the references and index pages.
The cover of the book is quite fun and I am aware of a few different cover versions in circulation, it is of normal fiction book size, and the text inside is 1.5 spaced making it quite easy to read however if you are looking for a book with pictures and diagrams you are going to be disappointed, it is text the whole way through.
The Dogs Brain
Having a look at the contents page the tile of the 11 chapters were a little confusing giving little away as to what each chapter would really contain. Chapter 2 the ‘marshmallow test’ rang some bells to my days of psychology and delayed gratification (if you are interested there are some hilarious YouTube videos just type in the marshmallow test).
The book itself is a narrative as to how the author has come to do the research he has today, it tells the story of training the dogs to be able to deal with an MRI scanner (no mean feat!) and how the researchers came up with the tests they did and also includes how research on other animals have helped feed into this study.
It goes into the background of the brain, why we look to study it, its evolution its purpose and its function and how our brains differ from that of our beloved canine companions. For example, the olfactory bulb (smell) in dogs is around 0.3% of the brain and in humans, it’s between 0.01-0.03%.
The book goes on to see how we compared dog brains to those of other mammals and their behaviour using sea lions, and dolphins to name but a few. The results are interesting but perhaps only if you are a bit of a geek like me. It shows the great lengths we as humans are going to better understand our wonderful four-legged friends, but also highlights a lot of the difficulties in translating the way we think and the way dogs think into something we can comprehend.
For those of you who may be concerned about the idea of experimenting on dogs, please don’t worry there is nothing in here that will upset you and all of the dogs engaged in the project willingly with no restraints etc if there were any signs of upset or distress the dog was allowed to no longer take part in the study.
WARNING: I will however mention that the author talks about other early experimentation on animals including dogs that are unethical and some people may find distressing, and it is clear the author experiences deep hurt and regret as to those experiences. The author does discuss the use of animals in testing. (if you wish to skip this part of the book please do not read pages 236-244.
For the last 3 years, Berns has pursued his dream of using fMRI to decode what dogs really think. The data they are collecting is revealing startling insights about how the brains of our beloved dogs work, and they are finding proof that they really do love us. In the process, they have broken new ground in elevating the rights of dogs.
It is also important to note there are a lot of comparisons to other animals made here, so it is not a book on just how dogs’ brains work.
This is not a book for everyone and I completely appreciate that your standard dog owner would probably find this type of book quite dry and boring, so I feel the title may be a little misleading in this way. As it is really how dogs’ brains work, rather than how dogs think…
If, however like me you are really interested in dog behaviour, neuroscience and general dog geekery it is worth a go. You can find more gundog books on our list here.
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