A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has revealed the compelling similarities in speech processing between human beings and dogs using functional MRI. According to researchers from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), akin to a human brain, a canine brain also processes speech hierarchically: word meanings at higher stages and intonations at lower.

Attila Andics, principal investigator of the study, said in a statement, "Although speech processing in humans is unique in many aspects, this study revealed exciting similarities between us and a speechless species. The similarity does not imply, however, that this hierarchy evolved for speech processing."

Using MRI on Awake Dogs

Humans keep talking to dogs whose sensitivity to human communicative signs is well known. Both the words what we say and the intonation how we say them carry information for them. For example, when we tell 'sit' many dogs can sit down. Similarly, when we praise dogs with a high toned voice, they may notice the positive intent. We know very little, however, on what is going on in their brains during these.

A pet looking at her owner
Representational Picture Bhaswati/ IBTsg

In this study, Hungarian researchers measured awake, cooperative dogs' brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Dogs listened to known, praise words (clever, well done, that's it) and unknown, neutral words (such, as if, yet) both in praising and neutral intonation.

Provides Understanding of Speech During Evolution

"Exploring speech processing similarities and differences between dog and human brains can help a lot in understanding the steps that led to the emergence of speech during evolution. Human brains process speech hierarchically: first, intonations at lower-, next, word meanings at higher stages. Some years ago, we discovered that dog brains, just as human brains, separate intonation and word meaning. But is the hierarchy also similar? said Anna Gábor, lead author of the study

"To find it out, we used a special technique this time: we measured how dog brain activity decreases to repeatedly played stimuli. During brain scanning, sometimes we repeated words, sometimes intonations. Stronger decrease in a given brain region to certain repetitions shows the region's involvement," explained Gábor.

Puppy and boy
Puppy and boy (Representational Picture) Pixabay

Hierarchical Speech Process

The results show that dog brains, just like human brains, process speech hierarchically: intonation at lower stages (mostly in subcortical regions), while known words at higher stages (in cortical regions). Interestingly, older dogs distinguished words less than younger dogs.

"Instead, the hierarchy following intonation and word meaning processing reported here and also in humans may reflect a more general, not speech-specific processing principle. Simpler, emotionally loaded cues (such as intonation) are typically analyzed at lower stages; while more complex, learnt cues (such as word meaning) are analyzed at higher stages in multiple species. What our results really shed light on is that human speech processing may also follow this more basic, more general hierarchy," explained Andics.

(With inputs from Agencies)