Building an MRI simulator in his living room, Gregory trained his dog Callie to "shimmy into it".
His team discovered what makes dogs individuals with varying capacities for self-control, different value system, and a complex understanding of human speech.
Below is an excerpt from Gregory Burn's latest book, What it's like to be a dog.
To talk to the animals, we humans had to understand the limitations on the receiving end.
Take a name.
Names are nouns, albeit proper nouns, meaning they refer to specific individuals or organizations. We use names to make clear who, out of all possible people, we are referring to. We also know that our own names refer to us as individuals, providing a label for our sense of self. Of course, we don’t normally refer to ourselves in the third-person, but when someone else uses our name, we instantly translate that into ‘I’ or ‘me.’
But how do animals treat names? If an animal doesn’t have the faculty to understand that words are symbols, it is unlikely that they translate their name into a sense of self. More likely, animals learn that a particular utterance means something interesting is about to happen and that they better pay attention. Whenever someone said, “Callie,” she directed her attention to whoever made that noise. I never got the sense that she equated her name with ‘me.’
Experiences of animal trainers would support the attention-grabbing function of names. “Callie, sit” is thought to be more effective than “Sit, Callie.” Humans don’t have any trouble parsing the equivalence between the statements (although the first sounds more imperative than the second, which is closer to a request). Callie responds better to the first because her name gets her attention for the subsequent action. The reverse order requires her to remember the action that precedes her name.
Much of this may seem like common sense. But if we are to build a foundation for animal communication, we have to speak in ways that they can understand. I have written a lot about the similarities between the brains of humans and other animals, but when it comes to language, we must acknowledge fundamental differences.
I have come to the conclusion that communication with animals is possible, but only on a low bandwidth channel. When it comes to verbal communication, simple verb-object statements are probably the best one can hope for. Most nonhuman animals probably lack the brain resources to understand the difference between subject and object in a sentence. Although many animals have some sense of self, it is probably rooted in the physical domain. A dog like Callie has a sense of her body and an awareness of where her body ends, and wouldn’t confuse her body with that of another dog. But it is unlikely that a dog links her name to her physical or mental self.
The above excerpt was published with permission from What it's like to be a dog by Gregory Berns.