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Same same, but different – A dog’s understanding and interpretation of language

By Pavitra Sankaran

You say “Good boy!” to your dog, who eagerly stares back at you with his beady eyes, tail wagging like a metronome. But does he really comprehend good boy? How can he sense he is being praised? Does he hear a specific tone or pronunciation and associate it with praise? The question at hand is: how does he know?

A recent fascinating scientific study, conducted by a group of Hungarian scientists, has concluded that dogs process language in a similar way to humans. They discovered that “our canine companions only experience a sense of reward when both the words and intonation indicate praise,” and that they “processing meaningful words with their left hemisphere and intonation with a region in their right hemisphere,” which overlaps with the way we process words and intonation.

The experiments involved researchers scanning the brains of several dogs in an MRI machine and monitoring their brain activity as a sound file of their trainer’s voice was played through headphones. “Four different recordings were played with either praise words (such as “well done!”) or neutral words (such as “however” or “nevertheless”) coupled with either a high-pitched intonation indicative of praise, or a neutral intonation.”

The results revealed that compared to neutral words, “praise words resulted in an increase in activity in the left hemisphere of the brain for both types of intonation”, suggesting that, like humans, dogs use the left side of their brain to process words that they have recognised and attach meaning to. On the other hand, “differences in intonation (but not word type) resulted in a change in activity in an area within the auditory region of the right hemisphere.”

Not only does the research show that “if dogs only hear you then it is not only how you say things but also what you say that matters to them”, but it also provides insight into the evolution of language.

The fact that neural mechanisms humans use to process speech are found in different species, suggests that we share a universal approach towards processing word meaning and intonation, as a result of innovation (invention of new words). Therefore, it is not that our neural mechanisms are changing, but rather that they have adapted to be what they are now.

So the next time you speak your dog, make sure what you’re saying to them and how you say it is what you intend for them understand. As Dave Barry says, “You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, ‘Wow, you’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!”

Some information adapted and quoted from:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/30/dogs-understand-both-words-and-intonation-of-human-speech

Sources of images:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/30/dogs-understand-both-words-and-intonation-of-human-speech#img-1

http://www.sommer-sommer.com/brainfacts/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/news-closer-look-to-your-right-and-left-hemisphere.jpg

 

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