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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

What It's Like to Be a Dog And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

Popular Science
By: Gregory Berns(Author)
301 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
What It's Like to Be a Dog is an entertaining account of the unorthodox research showing the similarities between the brains of humans and other mammals.
What It's Like to Be a Dog
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  • What It's Like to Be a Dog ISBN: 9781786074898 Paperback Feb 2019 In stock
  • What It's Like to Be a Dog ISBN: 9781786073617 Hardback Mar 2018 Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

What is it like to be a dog? A bat? Or a dolphin? To find out, neuroscientist Gregory Berns and his team began with a radical step: they taught dogs to go into an MRI scanner – completely awake. They discovered what makes dogs individuals with varying capacities for self-control, different value systems and a complex understanding of human speech. And dogs were just the beginning.

In What It's Like to Be a Dog, Berns explores the fascinating inner lives of wild animals from dolphins and sea lions to the extinct Tasmanian tiger. This new way of understanding animals will revolutionize how we communicate and treat our furry, and not-so-furry, friends. Groundbreaking and deeply humane, this is essential reading for animal lovers of all stripes.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Engaging account of unorthodox research
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Apr 2018 Written for Hardback

    Do you have a dog? I grew up surrounded by Newfoundlanders. Ever wondered what they are thinking? Whether they think at all? You'd be forgiven for thinking that What It's Like to Be a Dog is another book for dog lovers and, in part, it is. But don't let the title mislead you, this book is primarily a popular account of ongoing developments in animal neuroscience, specifically on what scanning mammal brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can tell us about our shared similarities.

    Humans are forever curious about what is going on inside the heads of their canine companions and there is no shortage of books trying to answer the question what it is like to be a dog (for instance Horowitz's Inside of a Dog, Hare & Wood's The Genius of Dogs, Coppinger & Feinstein's fairly scholarly How Dogs Work, or Bekoff's Canine Confidential). Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors specifically write about the dog's amazing sense of smell (for instance Warren's What the Dog Knows, Horowitz's Being a Dog, or Rosell's Secrets of the Snout).

    American neuroscientist Gregory Berns stepped into this crowded field with a radical idea: can we use MRI scanners to see what is happening in the brain of a dog? If you've ever been in a hospital to have an MRI scan, you will know that you have to lie still inside of a big and noisy machine while the scans are made. How do you get a dog to do this without sedating or restraining it, which would defeat the setup of your experiment? Having seen military dogs in action, Berns was convinced that dogs can be trained to voluntarily cooperate. His initial work with his dog Callie was described for a general audience in How Dogs Love Us.

    Meanwhile, Berns has not rested on his laurels and has trained up a pack of dogs. Mixing descriptions of research in human neuroscience with his own experiments, Berns takes the reader through some of their methods and findings. Using experimental protocols previously used in trials on humans (e.g. measuring self-control), Berns quickly found that analogous regions in dog brains are active during these tasks. Berns argues that these analogies matter. If activity in a certain part of the brain is linked with certain behaviours in humans, and you see comparable brain activity and behaviour in dogs, you are on safer ground to argue that dogs are having comparable experiences to us.

    Continuing to push the envelope, Berns has ventured beyond dogs, and this is where the subtitle of the book comes in. The reader is introduced to the study of neural connections between different brain regions, or connectomics (see also Seung's Connectome), and the MRI technique used to study it, diffusion tensor imaging or DTI. Using this, Berns has studied the brains of deceased sea lions, dolphins, and even the extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. His work on dolphins brains, showing that the wiring between the auditory and visual regions of the brain is similar to that in humans – which runs counter to textbook knowledge so far – is fascinating. Perhaps echolocation is not so alien to us after all. His efforts to get access to the rare few thylacine brain specimens are a thrilling adventure.

    Berns spends quite some pages on the arguments of those who disagree. There are philosophers and scientists who are not convinced that the reductionist approach of neuroscience will bring us any closer to understanding what another animal feels, as we can never fully access those internal experiences. Berns disagrees – it is through this reductionist approach he has shown that the brains of many mammals are similarly wired, and respond in a similar fashion to those of humans. We are probably not that different after all. From an evolutionary viewpoint this seems self-evident, I would add. Even Darwin thought the difference in our minds is one of degree, not of kind. There are limitations though, as Berns also concedes when discussing language. I don't expect meaningful conversation across the species barrier anytime soon, or perhaps ever.

    Maybe you have so far wondered what the point of any of this research is, beyond a bunch of scientists getting to play with their MRI-toys. Bonus points therefore for Berns highlighting the relevance of his research in the last chapter. The similarities between human and other mammalian brains in both function and structure make a strong case in favour of animals experiencing joy, pain, or social interactions much like we do. We may not have quite cracked the matter of self-awareness, but that seems only a matter of time and technical advances. This kind of research should further influence and inform how we treat animals, whether pets or livestock.

    In places, Berns throws in perhaps just a bit too much brain terminology. Not being a neuroscientist myself, I would have welcomed some schematic pictures of brains to help me place the names of all the brain regions. That minor quibble aside, What It's Like to Be a Dog is a well written and engaging account of the cutting-edge and unorthodox neuroscientific research Berns and others have been involved in, and is a book that should appeal far beyond an audience of dog owners.
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Gregory Berns is a distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he directs the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience. He is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestseller How Dogs Love Us. He lives in Atlanta.

Popular Science
By: Gregory Berns(Author)
301 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
What It's Like to Be a Dog is an entertaining account of the unorthodox research showing the similarities between the brains of humans and other mammals.
Media reviews

"An informed and humane exploration at the frontiers of animal sentience."

"A fascinating overview of a fledgling field, which could lead to seismic shifts in the ways animals are treated."
Mail on Sunday

"Groundbreaking research that shows that dog emotions are similar to people's [...] Dog lovers and neuroscientists should both read this important book."
– Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make us Human

"Berns [...] is boldly going where no one has gone before, offering a lively, eye-opening peek into his neuroscience kitchen."
– Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

"Berns has done it again; woven a compelling story with a scientific revolution. From building an MRI simulator in his living room to tracking down one of the four remaining brains of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, Berns takes us on an incredible journey of exploration and discovery. Marvellously written and intellectually engaging, What It's Like to Be a Dog will establish Berns as one of the most skilled neuroscientists of our day, as well as someone with the intuition that understanding other animals will lead to greater insight and knowledge about ourselves."
– Dr. Brian Hare, bestselling author of The Genius of Dogs

"Have you ever wanted to peek inside the mind of a dog? Gregory Berns' brain scanner does precisely that. But this book also contains many remarkable insights into the inner lives of other animals. Dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, Tasmanian devils – even the long-extinct Tasmanian tiger – they're all here. A fascinating journey towards an understanding of what dogs – and their mammalian cousins – might be thinking about us."
– John Bradshaw, author of the New York Times bestsellers Dog Sense and Cat Sense

"Berns mixes personal stories of dogs and dog lovers with elegant scientific experiments that show the surprising complexity behind many canine daily behaviours: a fun, fascinating and illuminating read."
New Scientist

"One of the most delightful things about What It's Like to Be a Dog is the attention Berns pays to each dog's individual quirks."
New Yorker

"Gregory Berns is a remarkable scientist, whose pioneering MRI studies of the brain across a range of species have opened up a pathway to deeper understanding of animals' internal awareness and perspectives. He's also an exceptional thinker, whose grasp of the ethical and practical significance of his findings for the status and treatment of animals is pervasive in this absorbing work."
– Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO, the Humane Society of the United States

"A fascinating read. Packed with personal stories, What It's Like to Be a Dog clearly lays out just who these amazing beings are, from the inside out. We can now learn what each individual animal wants and needs to have the best life possible in a human-centred world, and what we must do to make sure they do."
– Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, author of The Animals' Agenda and Canine Confidential

"It's the rare neuroscientist who has the patience and curiosity to train dogs to hop into an MRI machine, tails wagging. Or delve into the mysteries of the dolphin brain. Or venture to the far side of the globe to find the brain of an extinct, yet still fascinating species: the thylacine. Thankfully, Gregory Berns did all of these things. In this big-hearted book, he applies cutting-edge science to questions that have never been so timely: How do other animals perceive their worlds? How do they experience emotions? How does their language work? What It's Like to Be a Dog is a delightful, illuminating look at the minds and lives of our fellow creatures."
– Susan Casey, author of Voices in the Ocean

"The author explains that his purpose in writing this book is "to raise awareness of the mental lives of the animals with whom we share the planet". In that, he succeeds. An impressive overview of modern neurology and the still-unanswered issues raised by our treatment of our fellow living creatures."

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