Science Channel - InSCIder

26 Jul

Let's Talk to the Animals

Author Patrick J. Kiger with his dog MadgeEver wonder what your dog is thinking? Wish that he or she could tell you? Don't you wish there was some sort of gadget that made it possible to translate your pooch's thoughts into speech, and to make your response understandable to him or her?

I know, me too. I've got three dogs: a diminutive mixed-breed terrier with Napoleonic tendencies; a Puggle who seems to have the canine version of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; and a basset hound-pit bull mix with soulful eyes and a fear of loud mechanical noises.

Sometimes I can't help but speculate on what their perspective on our world is from 18-24 inches off the ground. They display at least a limited understanding of human speech (the words "dinner" and "walk" seem to particularly resonate). But I'm at a loss to get across more complex concepts, such as the importance of not encircling me on walks and wrapping their leashes around my legs as if I was a maypole. And conversely, they are unable to communicate back to me their nuanced views on subjects — for example, whether they'd enjoy riding on the roof of our Prius on our next vacation trip, as Seamus, Mitt Romney's Irish setter, supposedly did.

So far, unfortunately, nobody's developed a technology that enables complex, nuanced two-way communication between humans and canines. A few years back, Japanese toymaker Takara did come out with Bowlingual — a handheld gadget that picks up yelps, growls and whines from a wireless microphone attached to a dog's collar, and then utilizes an algorithm to match them with a database of sounds previously interpreted by animal behaviorists.

The problem, though, is dogs don't have human larynxes and tongues, which are positioned in a way that enables us to make a vast range of different sounds. (Here's a scientific paper analyzing the limitations of the vocal tracts of dogs and other animals.) So even if my basset hound-pit bull wants to offer an intriguing new interpretation of the symbolism in Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's early 1900s painting "A Friend in Need," she lacks the ability to vocalize anything that nuanced.

Thus, if we're ever going to figure out what dogs want to tell us, we will have to find a way to circumvent the vocal tract and tap directly into their brains. And before you dismiss that as a hopelessly wacky idea, consider this: as this February 2012 USA Today article details, neuroscientists recently have made headway (if you'll excuse the pun) in translating electrical signals in the part of the human brain that perceives speech into single words so that they're on the verge of being able to "read" spoken words that a subject is listening to.

Scientists say it's probably going to be trickier to translate words that someone is imagining, an activity that takes place in a different part of the brain. But even so, as New York University neuroscientist David Poeppel told the newspaper, "We are closing in on the code that the brain uses to give meanings to words." Eventually, using a device such as the iBrain, people with may be able to utilize their thoughts to communicate, as this April 2012 New York Times article details.

Monitoring and interpreting the electrical impulses in a dog's brain and then translating it into human speech, of course, would be vastly more difficult. We know surprisingly little about what goes on in dogs' brains, since until recently, we haven't been able to image their neural activity in real time. That's why I was excited to see this just-published article in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE, written by researchers Gregory S. Berns, Andrew M. Brooks and Mark Spivak from Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy. They've managed to figure out a way to train dogs to remain motionless inside an MRI machine, so that the researchers could take the first-ever images of a conscious, fully-functioning canine brain.

Here's a really cool video the researchers made, showing how they did it.

Once we can "see" dogs' thoughts, the researchers note in their article, that opens to door to understanding how dogs communicate — and how they make sense of human cues.

Is human language processed as arbitrary sounds, or do dogs have neural structures that respond in a deeper manner to language? What is the difference between how dogs represent humans and other dogs or animals? The questions are endless.

Indeed. But what do you think? Should researchers push ahead and try to find a way to facilitate two-way communication with dogs? Or should we be content with wagging tails and being nuzzled by wet noses? Express your opinion below.

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