Saturday, November 11, 2017

What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9780465096244

Berns uses what he’s learned about human cognition and emotion in the title of this book, which promises insights into the understanding of the dog brain. To be fair, the book does discuss experiments and findings involving what happens in a dog’s brain while commands are given and associations are made. But the book goes far beyond the dog to discuss cognition and sentience in animals of many kinds, principally by using evidence from MRI and fMRI brain scans. It is a fascinating look at the study of neuroscience on animals.

Despite the density of terms required to study neuroscience, Berns guides us easily through the basics, allowing us to understand the principal goal of their studies on dogs: to determine how dogs process information. I will admit to a degree of awe to think they could manage to get a dog to voluntarily crouch within a noisy MRI machine and stay immoveable long enough to be scanned while the scientists perform tests. Georgia dog trainer Mark Spivak was given a shout-out at the end of this book for his insights and indefatigable efforts to this end.

The decades-long work of Peter Cook of the pinniped labs in Santa Cruz, CA is highlighted for several chapters beginning with “Seizing Sea Lions.” Berns and Cook worked together to determine the effects of domoic acid toxicity on normal patterns of connectivity in the brains of dead sea lions. Domoic toxicity caused by agricultural runoff was determined to be the cause of a wave of malnourished sea lion strandings during El NiƱo years.

After the sea lions come dolphins, a discussion of how echolocation manifests in the brain, and some indication how dolphin brains resemble and differ from other mammals. Then back to dogs, where studies have shown a real possibility that rats and dogs may experience regret: regret for choices that do not turn out as desirable as anticipated. Berns acknowledges it is difficult to imagine regret in a rat, but he suggests that our word for it does not limit the experience of the emotion to those who understand the word. From here he moves from “what do words mean to animals”?

The detail in his discussion of dog training with words and visual cues may lead other scientists to suggest tweaks that may lead to even greater understanding of the emotional responses of animals. Enough work has been done now on a variety of mammals (and even crows!) to show emotions are a part of their brain activity and daily life. But what appeared to be almost a failure of dogs to recognize words led to a new insight:
“It may be that in a dog’s semantic space, actions and things are very close, which would explain why it was so difficult to teach the dogs the names of things. The semantic representation for ‘squirrel’ might be to ‘chase and kill,’ while ‘ball’ becomes ‘chase and retrieve.’…Human represent the world with nouns…it might require a shift in perspective—in this case, from a noun-based worldview to one based in action…In an action-based worldview, everything would be transactional.”
In one of the final chapters, called “A Death in Tasmania,” Berns tries something completely different. He writes of his experience traveling to Australia to view the habitat and scan the brain of an Tasmanian Tiger, a marsupial mammal species thought to be extinct. As an experience and as a piece of research, it is as different from his earlier work as studying the brains of placental mammals and marsupial mammals, two animals who evolved differently over millennia. Berns uses narrative nonfiction techniques to situate us visually, historically, physically in “one of the last great wildernesses on Earth…utterly unique and worthy of protection.”

The chapter on Tasmania really highlighted Berns’ special skills as a scientist—his ability to look beyond the lab to the wider meanings of neuroscience “for the rest of us,” as he emphasized in his final chapter on the “Dog Lab.” Working for so long on understanding the extent of animal cognition, consciousness, sentience, or self-awareness has led him to animal advocacy, if only for our own selfish reasons. “We, Homo sapiens, might soon be an animal in the eyes of our successors…” given our tinkering and experimentation with the human genome. One day unmodified humans may be considered undesirable, inferior.

Berns has skill in involving us, allowing us to follow his work. He would like to map the brains of the Earth’s megafauna with the best science and equipment available today.
“The WWF estimates that two-thirds of many species’ populations maybe gone by 2020. Apart from the ecological catastrophe, scientific opportunities may be lost forever. It is imperative that we begin the archival process for all species, and especially for megafauna…”
Is 2020 a misprint? I surely hope so.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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