Life Lines

A golden retriever in a fMRI scanner. Image by ENIKO KUBINYI from The Scientist.

A golden retriever in a fMRI scanner. Image by ENIKO KUBINYI from The Scientist.

A paper published in Current Biology describes research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the sound processing regions of brains in humans and dogs (border collies and golden retrievers). The subjects listened to almost 300 sounds (vocalizations from dogs and humans as well as non-vocal sounds) or no sound as a control. They used the fMRI to locate sound-sensitive regions (auditory cortex) in the human and dog brains. Not surprisingly, the human auditory cortex was mostly (87%) sensitive to human vocalizations. In contrast, the dog’s auditory cortex was mainly responsive to both dog vocalizations (39%) or non-vocal sounds (48%). Interestingly, both dogs and humans appear to process positive and negative vocal emotions quite similarly, which may be a reflection of thousands of years of co-existance. Although comparisons with other species would help to confirm whether this is common among mammals.

The ultimate goal is to find out whether dogs can understand human language or whether they just hear sounds.


A. Andics et al., “Voice-sensitive regions in the dog and human brain are revealed by comparative fMRI,” Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.058, 2014.

The Scientist


  1. #1 oldebabe
    February 22, 2014

    ISTM that dogs (my experience, anyway) get to understand certain sounds (vocalizations) that we make repetitively, which we call words, that mean specific things… so why the question?

    Vocalizations ARE (do become) language, after all.

  2. #2 G
    February 23, 2014

    Yes, we know that dogs process social inputs including vocalization, but what’s new is that we’re finding the mechanisms for this and the resemblance with those in humans.

    A surprisingly large amount of the content of vocal communication is carried by nonverbal components such as intonation and rhythm. This is easily illustrated by the long-standing observations of internet communication misunderstandings, and by the inability of most popular song lyrics to stand up as meaningful poetry in written form.

    What I find interesting about the present line of research and similar ones, is that it all converges on the conclusion that there is much common ground between humans and other animals. The more we look, the more we discover that we differ in various degrees but not in kind. The days when one could assert that humans are unique and superior, that other animals are not conscious etc., are behind us.

    And it would be merely stating the obvious to note how darn cute those dogs are in the photos.