How to Think Like a Dog

I often write about how the human race evolved and how we developed our finely tuned survival machines – our brains. Today I’m going to look into the evolution of a very close cousin of ours – the dog. Mathematicians like to conduct thought experiments, posing hypothetical questions simply to explore the possible outcomes of an experiment they never intend to perform. So let’s conduct a thought experiment of our own. How different would we be if all human brains were replaced with those of dogs?

We Engineered the Dog to Fit our Needs

It’s still a matter of scientific debate, but it appears that our present-day domesticated dogs evolved from wolves who became accustomed to human company. In a strange twist on the principles of evolution, those wolves who survived to become domesticated were those who were the most receptive to having a relationship with humans in exchange for protection and food. This environmental condition encouraged the reproduction of docile wolves over those who were more aggressive. Over time, we began to experiment with breeding dogs for particular characteristics. While originally we selected for specific skills, like hunting or herding, we also indulged our need for companionship. Looking at the range of breeds alive today, you might conclude that evolution is survival of the cutest.

Some Things Would Be the Same

Of course, dogs and man evolved from a distant common ancestor, so some things would remain the same. We’d still process sensation the same way. We’d still get a rush of adrenalin in stressful situations. We’d still react predictably to fear, pain, or hunger. We’d still get a rush of oxytocin, the “love molecule” whenever we were hugged by a loved one.

Some Things Could Be Worse

We might have more trouble solving complex problems, and communication could suffer. This is because the cerebral cortex, the seat of higher cognition, is less developed in dog brains. Before you feel too superior, though, watch this video of a dog with an amazing ability for language and inference. So maybe we would find that our dog brains, combined with our human body’s superior skill in manipulating objects in our environment, works just fine for most daily chores.

There are also a few interesting things a dog’s brain does that actually might be improvements on the human species.

Things We Might Do Better if We Were Dogs

First, we’d be much more sensitive to inequality. Dogs can tell when they are being treated differently and they change their behavior in those situations. Try giving a treat to just one of two dogs, and you’ll witness their righteous indignation!

We’d also detect early signs of serious illness much sooner. Dogs can detect cancer using their sense of smell; they also can be trained to alert their owners when they are about to have a seizure or heart attack.

We’d certainly be more empathetic and overtly kind to people who are sad. In a recent study, dogs were placed in a room with two people, one quiet and one openly crying. The dogs consistently sought out the crying person and appeared to try to console them. I wonder what would happen if we tried this same experiment on humans?

If we had dog brains, we’d also be much better listeners. In studies using MRIs, dog’s brains respond the same way that we do to happy or sad “social sounds.” A dog becomes so attuned to her owner’s voice that she can distinguish it even at a distance or in a noisy environment. The people in a dog’s life are so important that he will work hard to understand and predict their behavior.

Every brain is a survival machine; not just ours. Each species has evolved in a particular way to support the survival of future generations. The dog is somewhat unique in that its evolutionary process was heavily influenced by the choices and sometimes whims of another species — humans. Just as humans shaped the many different colors, sizes and shapes of dogs today, we shaped their brains, creating a perfect “best friend” and companion.

So now that we’ve made our own best friend in our own images, how can we learn to be more like them?

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