The brains of dogs can detect speech and show different patterns of activity when faced with a known and an unknown language, according to a study published today by NeuroImage.
Research carried out by the Eötvös University Hungarian is, according to its authors, the first demonstration that a non-human brain can differentiate between two languages.
The experts took brain images of eighteen dogs while listening to passages from “The Little Prince” in Spanish and Hungarian, with which they also saw that the older the dog, the better his brain distinguished between the known and unknown languages.
The origin of the research was the Kun-kun dog, owned by the study’s main author Laura Cuaya, who after years living in Mexico, where the animal had only heard Spanish, moved to Hungary.
“I wondered if Kun-kun realized that people in Budapest spoke another language,” since people, even preverbal babies, are known to notice the difference, he said.
A group of eighteen dogs, including that of the researcher, were trained to remain immobile in a brain scan where they listened to the reading fragments in both languages.
All the dogs had heard only one of the two languages from their owners, so they were able to compare a very familiar language with a completely unfamiliar one.
The language-specific patterns were found in a region of the brain called the secondary auditory cortex, the study adds.
“Each language is characterized by a series of auditory regularities. Our findings suggest that, during their life with humans, dogs capture the auditory regularities of the language to which they are exposed, ”explained Raúl Hernández-Pérez, other of the study’s signatories.
Knowing that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages ”is exciting,” he said, because it reveals that the ability to learn about the regularities of a language is not exclusively human, although it is not yet known if it is a specialty of dogs or exists. in other species.
It is possible, according to another of the authors Attila Andics, that “the brain changes produced by the tens of thousands of years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better listeners of language, but this is not necessarily the case”. that remains to be found out.
In addition to the fragments read from “The Little Prince,” the team made the animals listen to coded versions of those same passages, which sound “completely unnatural,” said Hernández-Pérez, to see if they detected the difference between speech and non-speech. speaks.
By comparing brain responses, the researchers discovered different patterns of activity in the dogs’ primary auditory cortex, a distinction that occurred regardless of whether the stimuli were coming from the familiar or unfamiliar language.
“The brain of dogs, like that of humans, can distinguish between speech and non-speech. But the mechanism that underlies this ability to detect speech may be different from that of speech sensitivity in humans, “he explained.
While human brains are “specially attuned to speech,” that of dogs may detect “just the naturalness of sound.”