A groundbreaking study by Hungarian scientists has found that dogs show increased brain sensitivity to speech directed specifically at them, especially when it is spoken by females. The study, published in the journal Communications Biology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of trained family dogs while listening to recordings of dog-directed, infant-directed and adult-directed speech.
– Studying how the dog brain processes dog-directed speech is very interesting because it may help us understand how exaggerated prosody contributes to efficient speech processing in non-human species that are adept at relying on different speech cues.” – Anna Gergely, co-author of the study.
The importance of exaggerated prosody
When communicating with people who have limited language competence, such as infants and dogs, humans tend to use a style of speech characterized by exaggerated prosody. This style of speech, known as infant speech, has been shown to play a critical role in the healthy cognitive, social, and language development of children. Researchers have attempted to determine whether dogs show sensitivity to this specific style of speech.
In an fMRI study, conscious family dogs listened to speech recordings of 12 women and 12 men in real-life interactions. The recordings included dog-directed speech, infant-directed speech, and adult-directed speech. By measuring the dogs’ brain activity while listening to the recordings, the researchers sought to identify any patterns or differences in their neural responses.
Results and conclusions
The study found that the auditory areas of the dogs’ brains responded more strongly to speech directed at a dog or infant than to speech directed at an adult. This is the first neural evidence that dogs’ brains are indeed attuned to speech directed specifically to them. Interestingly, the sensitivity of the dogs’ brains to speech directed at dogs and infants was more pronounced when the speakers were female. The results also showed that voice pitch and its variations play a significant role in the dogs’ responses.
Implications and expert opinions
The findings suggest that the way we speak to dogs does matter and that their brains are particularly sensitive to the exaggerated prosody usually associated with female voices. Anna Gergely, co-author of the study, emphasizes the importance of studying how dogs’ brains process speech directed at dogs, as this may provide insight into how exaggerated prosody contributes to efficient speech processing in non-human species.
Anna Gabor, another co-author of the study, explains that the dogs’ brains’ increased sensitivity to dog-directed speech delivered by women may be due to the fact that women are more likely to use exaggerated prosody when communicating with dogs. This preference may have formed during the domestication of dogs.
– What makes this result particularly interesting is that in dogs, unlike in infants, this sensitivity cannot be explained by either an ancient response to kin signals or by intrauterine exposure to the female voice.” – Anna Gabor, co-author of the study.