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Dogs’ Brains Naturally Process Numbers, Just Like Ours

Scientists stuck 11 dogs in fMRI scanners to see if their brains had a knack for quantity

How many sheep? (Arbutus Photography / flickr)
smithsonianmag.com

Sit. Stay. Fetch. Count?

Sort of. A team of scientists has found that dogs naturally process numbers in a similar brain region as humans, reports Virginia Morell for Science. While that doesn’t mean mutts can do math, it seems they have an innate sense of quantity, and may take notice when you put fewer treats in their bowl, according to a study published this week in Biology Letters.

Importantly, while other research has delved into similar stunts that scientists coaxed out of canines by rewarding them with treats, the new study suggests a knack for numbers is present in even untrained dogs—and could have deep evolutionary roots. This supports the idea that the ways in which animals process quantity in their brains may be “ancient and widespread among species,” Michael Beran, a psychologist at Georgia State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Morell.

To test pooches’ numerical prowess, a team led by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, scanned the brains of 11 dogs of different breeds as they gazed at screens serially flashing different numbers of variably-sized dots. As the images flipped rapidly past, the researchers looked for activity in a region of the canine brain called the parietotemporal cortex, analogous to humans’ parietal cortex, which is known to help people rapidly process numbers. In humans, this region lights up on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner when numbers start to vary—a sign that cells are working hard to puzzle through the difference.

Something similar seems to apply to canines, the team found. When dogs hopped into the scanner, most of their parietotemporal cortices showed more activity when the numbers of dots flashed onto the screen changed (for instance, three small dots followed by ten big dots) than when they stayed the same (four small dots followed by four large dots).

The behavior wasn’t universal: 3 out of the researchers’ 11 test subjects failed to discern the difference. But it’s not surprising that the rest did, Krista Macpherson, a canine cognition researcher at Western University in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Morell.

Of course, approximating quantities of dots isn’t the same as solving complex mathematical equations, as our brains are equipped to do. But both behaviors stem from an inherent sense for numbers—something that appears to span the 80-million-year evolutionary gap between dogs and humans, the findings suggest.

Understanding how that basic ability might evolve into “higher” mathematical skills is a clear next step, study author Lauren Aulet, a psychologist at Emory University, says in a statement. Until then, we humans can count on the fact that we have plenty in common with our canine companions.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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