(CN) — Your dog may actually understand what you’re saying when you call him “good boy.”
In a study published Tuesday in the journal Science, researchers from Hungary presented their findings after scanning the brains of dogs that were listening to their trainers speak to determine which parts of the brain the dogs were using.
The team found that dogs process words in the left hemisphere of their brains, while information was processed with the right hemisphere — the same structure as humans.
When the trainers’ words and voice inflection were positive, the dogs registered that they were being praised. Random words said in a neutral tone, as well as meaningful words spoken in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.
“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” lead author Attila Andics told the Associated Press. “Praise can work as a reward only if both meaning and intonation match.”
Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, explained that when dogs hear speech, they seem to separate the meaning of the words from the inflection and independently analyze each aspect of speech.
The team said the findings suggest that the mental ability to process language evolved earlier than previously believed, and that what separates humans from dogs is the invention of words.
“The neural capacities to process words that were thought by many to be uniquely human are actually shared with other species,” Andics said. “This suggests that the big change that made humans able to start using words was not a big change in neural capacity.”
Andics said that while other species likely have the mental ability to understand language like dogs do their lack of interest in human speech makes it difficult to test and measure. Since dogs have been socialized with humans for thousands of years, they are more alert to what people say to them and how.
Brian Hare, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study, told NPR the study is also important because it may be the first major discovery made using noninvasive neuroscience with awake animals that have not been drugged or restrained.
“That just changes everything,” he said. “You literally can see what’s going on in their brains just like you would with people. And it’s really the first time that this has led to a big discovery, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of this.”
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