If you have a dog, you probably think yours is the smartest dog in the world. New research from Hungary just may prove you’re correct. Behavioral studies at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest show that not only do dogs possess “episodic” memory (that is, memory of past events), but they also use both hemispheres of their brains when processing information. This puts dogs into a select group of highly-intelligent animals and may offer some clues as to why dogs hold the title of “man’s best friend.”
While it’s obvious that dogs understand praise and can sense anger, what the researchers wanted to understand better was exactly how they process this information. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the team was coaxing a group of volunteer canines to sit in an MRI machine while they took scans of their brains in action. During the scans, they repeated both positive and neutral words to the dogs in positive and neutral tones. For example, they might say the positive words “good boy” (or, more specifically, the Hungarian equivalent phrase) in both a positive and neutral tone and neutral words like “however” or “therefore” in a both positive and neutral tone.
What they found was that the positive words said in a positive tone resulted in the strongest activity in the dog’s brain reward center. All other combinations showed lower responses. The dogs, of course, had experience with the praise words—they were able to relate them to other times they had received praise and, possibly, a reward. What the experiment proved, however, was that they weren’t just hearing and remembering the words. They were also noting body language and paying attention to meaning. In other words, they were using both the left and right hemispheres of their brains, just as humans do. The left hemisphere is typically associated with giving meaning to things, like words, while the right is responsible for creativity and emotions. In terms of the evolution of language, this is the first evidence that the ability to interpret language in this way may have already developed in non-primates, or long before human beings began to talk.
Another study at the same university lends credibility to the idea that dogs just may remember more than we’re often told they do. It shows that dogs indeed have “episodic” memory, or memories of past events. To demonstrate this, the researchers trained 17 dogs to obey the “Do as I Do” command, or mimic the actions of the trainer, whether it be lying down or jumping in the air, when given the command “Do it.” They next trained the same dogs to lie down after watching the trainers perform another, seemingly pointless, action like grabbing a purse or touching an umbrella. After they were certain the dogs knew to lie down, the trainers then again gave the command “Do it.” To their surprise, the dogs performed the action, showing that they had remembered what they had seen, even though it carried no evident reward or had any significance for them.
As lead researcher Claudia Fugazza told a reporter from Seeker, the study shows clearly that dogs do have the ability “to access memory of actions performed by others,” not simply their own. She added that it also suggests that dogs remember much of what we do all the time, “although it may seem irrelevant for them.” She and her group next want to see if they can determine if the dogs can associate goals with these actions, or if it’s just imitation.
Both studies suggest that cognition in dogs is far closer to what it is in humans than animal behaviorists have traditionally believed. More importantly, a better understanding of a dog’s memory may help us better understand and combat the effects of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, that severely impair this type of memory. On a perhaps even more human note, however, the development of episodic memory in dogs also may provide another reason for the closeness we human beings have to our four-legged friends.
According to Fugazza, “This [episodic memory] is a skill that might be useful to a species living in a rich and complex environment where there is so much to discover, and their human companions can be considered as knowledgeable partners to learn form.”
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