Blogging Down Our Brains

by prescotthbreeden

“By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” – Oscar Wilde

Anyone interested in furthering his or her knowledge of a subject is faced with a depressing enigma: the amount of bad information outnumbers the amount of good information.  As a person who lives life trying to acquire a deeper understanding of the world, bad information really pisses me off.

Recently, a blog was published titled “5 Incredible Ways Dogs Can Read Your Mind” (Emery, 2013).  In it, the author presents several claims to support the premise that dogs can read our minds.  Formally, this is referred to as Theory of Mind, which Emery defines as the “understanding that other beings have different perceptions, and that those perceptions can be valuable” (Coren, 2011a).  This is wrong.  To be fair, even scientists do not always define it accurately, however choosing a blogger to reference who actually took the time to read the conclusions and discussions of the studies they were reviewing might have been a beneficial start.

The correct definition:

Theory of mind is the ability to make accurate inferences to understand the behavior of other animals because of abstract (theory-like) representations of the causal relationship between unobservable mental states and observable behavior (Premack & Woodruff, 1978, as cited in Penn & Povinelli, 2007—emphasis my own).

More concisely, theory of mind requires the ability to know that the behavior of another animal is a product of their cognitive state—this is distinctly different from responding to environmental factors, including that of an animal’s behavior (Udell & Wynne, 2011).  While many authors have described theory of mind as dated and potentially no longer useful (e.g. Horowitz, 2011), the goal of this blog isn’t to provide alternative evidence as to whether or not theory of mind is a valid concept in non-human animals such as dogs—best to let that war rage on in the academic community.  Instead, this blog is two-fold: 1) to correct the dirge of fallacies that went viral with Emery’s blog and 2) to use it as a model for understanding how important the source of information is.  With that as our base, let’s start at the top.  If you haven’t read the blog I am referring to yet, here is the link.

Note: the titles of each section below correlate to the paragraph titles of Emery’s blog and are here to give sign posts regarding what statements I am pulling apart: they are not claims I am making.

#5: Dogs are Capable of Empathy

“Yawning is a phenomenon directly connected to empathy, and as such has only been found to occur in species capable of empathizing (i.e. humans, and other primates), and only then within a single species.” (Emery, 2013)

First, yawning behavior is widespread and believed to be common to ALL vertebrates: including mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles (Baenninger, 1997).  Second, there are EIGHT different hypotheses regarding the function of yawning, if it is indeed even functional, and so the communication (empathy) hypothesis is just one of several ‘stabs’ at why animals yawn (Guggisberg et al. 2010).  Problematically, the communication hypothesis is not unilaterally supported and the studies that do support it are plagued with a lack of controls to rule out competing hypotheses that would be direct confounds to the results.  Even if we accepted that contagious yawning as a function of empathy was viable and true, researchers employing more stringent methods have been unable to conclude that dogs show signs of contagious yawning behavior (Harr et al., 2009).

“So obviously dogs have an uncanny ability to read our emotions … but how? Well, it’s because all humans, whether right- or left-handed, display our emotions predominantly on the right side of our faces.” (Emery, 2013)

You’d think with a 50/50 chance she might have gotten this one right merely by dumb luck—but no, humans display their emotions predominantly on their LEFT side, not their right (Borod et al. 1997).  Regardless of problems between lefts and rights, associative learning is an alternate explanation for any gaze bias observed in dogs.  However, perhaps ironically, it could even be argued that if dogs could read our mind, then they wouldn’t need to check in with the more emotional side of our face to know if we are just slightly angry about the Christmas ham getting eaten, or really angry.  Empathy is an equally hot topic as theory of mind and definitions historically have tended to overlap—often stressing the importance of “cognitive perspective taking” (Davis 1983).  Despite the sticky separation of these concepts, empathy refers to the ability of one individual to infer and share the emotional spectrums of another (Gallese, 2003; Völlm et al., 2006).  Thus, regarding whether or not non-human animals have empathy, gaze research simply cannot possibly answer the question.

#4: Dogs Understand That Your Visual Perspective Is Different from Their Own

Yes, they do, but does this constitute evidence that they possess theory of mind?  Opponents to the “perspective taking” element supporting theory of mind make a compelling counterargument: simply that all animals learn.  If a moose walks into a tree, they do not turn around and walk the other way because at some point in their life they learned they could walk around it.  A group of gazelles foraging and scanning the environment have learned to scan for predators because being eaten by a cheetah sucks.  A prey animal thus wouldn’t survive very long without some knowledge of potential threats in the environment.  Knowing this, if a gazelle stops eating, freezes, and looks across the field, the fact that all the gazelles are likely to stop foraging and check for danger does not prove the presence of theory of mind, because alternatively they could be responding due to empirical knowledge that it is in their interest to keep a look out for hungry kittens.

If you’re walking along the street and you see someone looking up, we are likely to look up as well.  The novelty of seeing someone looking up is a pretty strong stimulus to evoke our social facilitation (looking up as well), just like the gazelle and their knowledge that the environment contains dangers to be aware of, we understand that pianos or stock brokers falling on our head is also likely to put a dent in our afternoon.

Many researchers have demonstrated how dogs and wolves have varying abilities to search around visual barriers (e.g. Bräuer et al., 2004; Range et al., 2011; Virányi et al., 2009); however, ultimately here is what you have to decide for yourself:

  1. The dog is reading your mind and knows that you are looking at an object around the corner
  2. The dog notices that your eyes are looking somewhere to their right or left (an observable behavior) and is curious to investigate – oh there is a barrier?  Hmmm, let me walk around that

I think this research is interesting, but even so, this does not constitute evidence for theory of mind because it does not rule out competing hypotheses; such that a dog could be simply taking information from a visual environment—not attenuating to the cognitive states to understand the causal relationship between unobserved mental states and observed behavior.  Just my opinion, argument 2 seems much more practical and is further supported by our understanding that dogs are extremely sensitive to gazing since it is one of the most common signals they use in agonistic (conflict) behavior.

More egregiously though, Emery continues and states that dogs will abandon all morality and go for a piece of food the second you close your eyes, or turn your back, or place a barrier between you and the food, and this is a complete misinterpretation to the research done on this phenomena and thus absolute gibberish.  Leaving a food item alone is trainable.  Browse around YouTube and you will find plenty of videos where a dog is told to wait before his or her dinner bowl is set down, and then the owner walks out of the room, or even the house, before returning to release the dog to eat the food.  Honestly, a solid ‘leave it’ is one of the easiest behaviors to train, so this kind of research has to be interpreted very carefully regarding what it actually means, if anything, for the lives of our dogs.

#3 Dogs Assume That You Know Something They Don’t

As if I wasn’t already pounding my head against the desk, the author then uses the observation that dogs want to eat what we are eating as support for doggie mind reading abilities.  Unfortunately, this is not a trait unique to dogs (or humans for that matter).  Many social mammals select food preference by their group’s behavior.  For example, rats learn from group members how to determine what to eat and will learn to avoid the smell of poisoned food, a neophobic response—this is one of the reasons why rat poison doesn’t eliminate rat populations (Galef & Clark, 1971).  It is a fascinating behavior, but it does not require mind reading—rather rudimentary social facilitation.

#2 Dogs Understand Pointing

“…but the fact of the matter is that dogs and humans are the only two species currently clinging to our big blue spaceball who understand the point of pointing.”  (Emery, 2013)

Other than wolves (Udell et al., 2008), cats (Miklosi et al., 2005), parrots (Giret et al., 2009), bats (Hall et al., 2011), Jackdaws (Von Bayern & Emery, N., 2009), goats (Kaminski et al., (2005), dolphins (Pack & Herman, 2004), fur seals (Scheumann & Call, 2004), Ravens (Schloegel et al., 2007; for a review, see Udell et al., 2012)… hmm, only two species you say?  Monty Python jokes about the Spanish Inquisition aside, the ability for an animal to learn that they can walk around a tree is no different from the ability to learn that a finger might be directing towards food.  Animals who learn this distinction are socialized to people—period.  Nobody has snatched a dog that has never seen a human, tossed it in a room, pointed at a cup with food inside, and seen the dog dive in and say “thank you master!”  No, it would be shaking in the corner terrified for its life.  Animals who have been socialized to humans respond to pointing and other human communicative gestures (e.g. gazing and pointing with foot): pick your species.  Variance in this skill can be as easily explained by the failure for many animals to follow directions (just ask any school teacher how many times they have to remind students to write their name at the top of a test).


#1 Dogs Know When You Like Someone Else More

Finally, Ms. Emery claims that oxytocin is a “love- and jealousy-related hormone” (Coren, 2011b).  This claim comes from a single study involving humans playing a computer game (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009), however the conclusions the authors make can be reinterpreted to fit the standard functional understanding of oxytocin (Tops, 2010).  Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that triggers milk letdown in nursing females and is involved in a wide variety of social behaviors: such as increasing pleasure during orgasm, increasing time of social contact, facilitating memory of sexual partners, protects fetal neurons from injury during delivery, improves navigational strategies, and works with vasopressin receptors to aid pair-bonding (Breedlove et al., 2010).

If you don’t see references: assume the author is an idiot

It should be clear by now that might be just about the worst source for dog behavior science, and if you have been following some of the citation trails, Psychology Today might appear as a questionable source as well.  There are more authors writing books and blogging about dogs than there are dogs in family homes and they range from people with high school diplomas to PhDs. Citations and a reference list is an excellent way to begin to decipher the quality of information, however it is not everything either.

While bad information frustrates the daylights out of me, ultimately, the burden falls on the consumer to be sure to examine the evidence. This is one of many reasons why a list of references is so important, and why it is best to assume the author is likely an idiot if they don’t bother to acknowledge the sources of their information in a clear, concise reference section at the end.  If there is no reference list, than be sure to ask yourself whether you believe you are reading an opinion piece or an opinion piece veiled as accurate science.


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