Like humans, dogs appear to possess brain systems that are devoted to making sense of vocal sounds, and are sensitive to their emotional content. These systems have not previously been described in dogs or any non-primate species, and the new findings offer an intriguing neurobiological glimpse into the richness of our particular corner of the animal kingdom.
“What makes us really excited now is that we’ve discovered these voice areas in the dog brain,” said comparative ethologist Attila Andics of Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, lead author of the Feb. 20 Current Biology paper describing the experiments. “It’s not only dogs and humans. We probably share this function with many other mammals.” Conducted in the laboratory of fellow Eötvös Loránd ethologist Ádám Miklósi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on canine intelligence and behavior, the study was inspired by a turn-of-the-millennium discovery of regions of the human brain attuned to human voices. Similar regions have since been described in monkeys, which last shared a common ancestor with humans 30 million years ago.
By comparing differences and similarities in human and dog brains, said Andics, scientists might learn more about what gives rise to human language and our sophisticated cognition. By the same token, though, we might find that much of what we consider sophisticated is built from basic mental building blocks found in many other animals.