Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Sit. Stay. Speak. Understand.

As regular readers of Skeptophilia know, we have two dogs.  One of them is a blue-tick/redbone coonhound mix named Lena, who is sweet, friendly, laid back, and has the IQ of a peach pit.  Where some dogs's brains are finely-constructed computers, instantaneously aware of their surroundings and ready to respond to whatever circumstance they're faced with, Lena has an Etch-a-Sketch.  If you turn her upside down and shake gently, she forgets everything she ever learned.

She makes up for this lack of brainpower for being eternally cheerful, although sometimes you have to wonder if she's happy mostly because she has no idea what's going on.

Then there's Guinness.  Guinness is an American Staffordshire Terrier mix whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is playing fetch.  We're not entirely sure how smart he is, because he might be the most stubborn dog I've ever met.  I think sometimes he pretends he doesn't understand because if he let on, then he'd have to admit that he's not following our commands purely because he doesn't want to.

But he's incredibly sweet and snuggly, at least when he's not bouncing off the ceiling.

This comes up because of some research out of Emory University that was published last week in Frontiers in Neuroscience that put dogs in a fMRI machine to try to learn how good their linguistic skills are -- if they're simply associating sounds with an object or set of actions, learned through classical conditioning, or if they're actually forming representational connections in their brains when they learn words (in other words, when Guinness hears "ball," does he picture the red rubber ball we always play fetch with?).

The paper, called, "Awake fMRI Reveals Brain Regions for Novel Word Detection in Dogs," authored by Ashley Prichard, Peter F. Cook, Mark Spivak3, Raveena Chhibber, and Gregory S. Berns, found that dogs' processing of spoken words is remarkably like that of humans -- except for the fact that dogs show greater neural activation for words they don't know than ones they are familiar with.  The authors write:
How do dogs understand human words?  At a basic level, understanding would require the discrimination of words from non-words.  To determine the mechanisms of such a discrimination, we trained 12 dogs to retrieve two objects based on object names, then probed the neural basis for these auditory discriminations using awake-fMRI.  We compared the neural response to these trained words relative to “oddball” pseudowords the dogs had not heard before.  Consistent with novelty detection, we found greater activation for pseudowords relative to trained words bilaterally in the parietotemporal cortex.  To probe the neural basis for representations of trained words, searchlight multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) revealed that a subset of dogs had clusters of informative voxels that discriminated between the two trained words.  These clusters included the left temporal cortex and amygdala, left caudate nucleus, and thalamus.  These results demonstrate that dogs’ processing of human words utilizes basic processes like novelty detection, and for some dogs, may also include auditory and hedonic representations.
[Nota bene:  If you're like me and didn't know the word "hedonic," it means "having to do with a relationship to sensations, either pleasant or unpleasant.]

The authors speculate that the reason for the greater activation in dogs when confronted with novel words is because dogs are so tuned in to their owners -- the desire to please is incredibly powerful in the dog-human relationship.  So that suggests that when dogs hear unfamiliar words, they really want to understand.

This explains the Canine Head Tilt of Puzzlement that Guinness gives us whenever we talk to him.  You really get the impression he's trying his hardest to figure out what we're saying to him.  And when he succeeds in understanding -- such as when one of us says, "Do you want your dinner?" or "Let's go outside and play ball," he's absolutely thrilled.  He reacts much like I did when I was taking Classical Mechanics in college, a class that was so far over my head that most of the concepts passed me by without so much as ruffling my hair.  When I did understand something, it was so exciting that if I'd had a tail, I'd have been wagging the hell out of it.

"We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands," said senior author Gregory Berns.  "Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners...  Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words, but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response."

Which is pretty cool.  I've always been convinced that my dogs understand every word I'm saying to them, even though you can say any damn thing you want to Lena and she'll still look at you as if you are the smartest person she's ever met.  But it's amazing to think they actually have some rudimentary linguistic skill beyond just simple conditioning.

And, of course, the communication goes the other way, too.  Guinness just came and dropped his ball into my lap.  I tried to tell him that it's snowing out and there's a 25-mile-per-hour wind, but he just gave me the infamous Head Tilt, which is so cute that it gets me to do his bidding every single time.  Making me wonder sometimes who's trained whom.


The Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a must-read for anyone interested in languages -- The Last Speakers by linguist K. David Harrison.  Harrison set himself a task to visit places where they speak endangered languages, such as small communities in Siberia, the Outback of Australia, and Central America (where he met a pair of elderly gentlemen who are the last two speakers of an indigenous language -- but they have hated each other for years and neither will say a word to the other).

It's a fascinating, and often elegiac, tribute to the world's linguistic diversity, and tells us a lot about how our mental representation of the world is connected to the language we speak.  Brilliant reading from start to finish.

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