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Dogs are man’s best friend and there may be a scientific reason for that. New research into how dogs process human speech has revealed that their brains work to understand in much the same way that human brains do. This is not proof that dogs understand the words exactly, but they seem to be able to interpret tone and emphasis. As these two features comprise an important part of real communication, it is an interesting discovery which shows that humans are not the only ones to react to it. In addition, the fact that dogs in some measure understand their human owners is a comforting notion that no doubt many people will enjoy.
The human brain processes different speech in one of two hemispheres of the brain. The left and right hemispheres have different purposes which make the human brain a unique instrument in the world of mammals. Many people say that they are either left brained or right brained depending on whether they are scientifically inclined or artistically inclined. New research indicates that a similar process of hemisphere specialization exists in the brains of canine companions. The left hemisphere interprets speech while emotions while the right interprets speech itself.
Humans have a similar way of processing speech. The same specialization of the hemispheres exists: speech on the right and emotion on the left. Perhaps it is this similarity between the two species which makes them such friends and loyal companions to each other. Indeed, some scientists note that dogs and humans have co-evolved over time. Author Marc Bekoff told Live Science that “I bet we’ll learn more and more about how we influenced dogs and they us.” This point of view sees a correlation between the two species’ development and the findings of this new research.
On the other hand, perhaps it is less a question of influence and more of simple similarity. The adage about birds of a feather flocking together may be equally applicable to humans and their four-legged best friends. It could be that because of this similarity in brain processes the two species cooperated together in the first place, allowing for the co-evolution of the species into the forms of today.
People are certainly inclined to seek the similarities between themselves and their pet pooches. There is research on this subject which is so dear to many hearts, but it does not necessarily yield good news. People may be inclined to impute emotions to their dogs which the animals do not themselves possess. A study indicates that dogs do not feel guilty when their owners scold them, no matter what the sad puppy eyes they give might suggest. This is just an instance of people anthropomorphising their dogs, attributing human qualities on a non-human being. That is what is going on when people dress their dogs up in clothes, treat them like children and even in the portrayal of the famous Lassie.
While Lassie may have understand the distress of the child caught in the well, it is unsure whether he actually understood the words, “Go get help.” Despite their understanding of emotions, there is no clear evidence that they understand the actual words used. Tone and emphasis are part of canine understanding, but researchers have not determined how much else they grasp. Nevertheless, when people ask their dogs whether they want to go for a walk, they can be pleased to know that they are speaking to a friend who understands them much like a human would.
By Lydia Bradbury
Photo by Doug Brown – Flickr License