By Dr. Bob Encinosa
It has been said that most scientific studies are either unnecessary or wrong. But some studies are simply fascinating even if all they do is confirm our suspicions. A recent study at Emory University has shown that dogs have an innate way to process the images of human faces in their brains. This has previously only been well documented in humans and other primates.
The six dogs in the study were trained to remain motionless through the course of an MRI scan of their brains. This training was important since sedation or general anesthesia would have effected their responses. The tests showed that dogs have a “face-processing” area in the temporal cortex of their brains and are therefore born with the ability to recognize human faces and expressions. Of course, dogs living in close contact with humans probably develop this ability to a much greater degree, but this study shows that not all of what makes dogs special to us is learned.
Humans have been living with dogs longer than any other animal so the implication of this study is that dogs may have developed this innate ability over thousands of years of human influenced evolution.
In recent years, another study showed that dogs, like humans, display a “left gaze bias” when looking at faces of people. That is, their eyes wander to the left in order to focus on the right side of a human’s face. Other studies have shown that the right side of our faces can express emotions more accurately and more intensely than the left. If so, it makes sense that dogs and humans would tend to focus on the right side of our faces. Dogs have also been shown to be able to recognize meanings of images of only parts of human faces, such as smiles or angry eyes.
What about cats? Even though cats can become very much in tune with our habits and actions, it appears that their recognition of faces and expressions by vision alone is not an innate ability. It is likely that they depend more on voices, smells and general body size and shape to recognize us.
So, if it seems at times that your dog is staring at you wondering what you’re thinking, you’re probably right!