Neuroscience gets passionate about emotional animals

Michael Cook
Bioedge
October 26, 2013
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A lively debate in contemporary neuroscience is whether animals feel emotions. In a recent New York Times article influential neuroscientist Gregory Berns argued that they do.

Berns, of Emory University, has conducted countless MRIs on trained dogs, monitoring their response to emotional and other stimuli. He found that there was increased activity in the caudate nucleus when they smelt familiar humans, or when images were shown of an owner stepping in and out of view. The caudate nucleus plays an important role in producing emotion.

Berns comments, "Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions."

Berns uses the findings as an opportunity to argue for increased animal rights. He goes as far to suggest that dogs should be afforded a kind of "limited personhood", to protect them legally from exploitation.

Wesley Smith, editor of the blog Human Exceptionalism, criticized Berns suggestion: "...because dogs are intelligent and “experience positive emotions,” that does not make them morally equivalent to a human child. Human exceptionalism is about far more than that!"