While faces are hugely important for visual communication in humans, the same can’t be said for our canine companions.
Experiments involving functional magnetic resonance imaging on 20 dogs were carried out at Eötvös Loránd University and the National Autonomous University of México, Querétaro, Mexico, two of very few facilities that can scan dogs’ brains when they are awake and unrestrained.
Results revealed large dedicated neural networks in human brains are used to differentiate faces from non-faces. In dogs there are no brain regions that fire to differentiate faces.
Instead, dogs use more information from smell or larger parts of the body, study co-author Attila Andics of Eötvös Loránd University, told CNN.
“In dogs, for kin recognition and mate selection facial cues are not more important than non-facial bodily cues, acoustic or chemical signals,” Andics said.
The full study, described by researchers as the first one of its kind, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience Monday.
Andics told CNN that dogs do care about human faces, even if their brains aren’t specifically tuned into them.
“I think it is amazing that, despite apparently not having a specialized neural machinery to process faces, dogs nevertheless excel at eye contact, following gaze, reading emotions from our face, and they can even recognize their owner by the face,” Andics said.
“During domestication, dogs adapted to the human social environment, and living with humans they quickly learn that reading facial cues makes sense, just as humans learn to pay attention to little details, of let’s say, a phone, without having specialized phone areas in their brain.”
Researchers will now compare how dog and human brains process other visual categories such as body parts, various species and everyday objects, said Andics.
The team will also investigate whether dog brains have developed different specializations as a result of living with humans, Andics added.