Hungarian researchers are discovering striking similarities and differences in how the brains of dogs and humans process each other’s visual information.
Do dogs process faces the same way as humans? Researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary set out to answer this question using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment. Faces are central to visual communication in humans, who have a specific neural network for face processing. Although domestic dogs also excel at making eye contact and reading facial emotions, they also rely on other body signals to communicate.

In the first non-invasive direct comparison visual neuroimaging study of a non-primate and a primate species, 20 dogs and 30 humans viewed short movies depicting dog and human faces and, for comparison, the back of their heads.

The study identified areas of the dogs’ and humans’ brains that responded differently to the videos depending on whether they showed an individual of their own species.

“Previously, our research group had shown a similar correspondence between dog and human brains in vocal processing,” said Attila Andics, lead author of the study. “We now see that species sensitivity is an important organizing principle in the mammalian brain for processing social stimuli, in both the auditory and visual modality.”

In terms of differences, the study found no brain areas in dogs to encode whether the image seen is a face or the back of a head, whereas in humans this distinction is crucial. While the human brain is better at distinguishing faces from others, the dog brain is more focused on distinguishing dogs from humans.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, expand our understanding of how the brain’s social functions, particularly visuosocial processing, are organized and how they evolve in dogs and humans.

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