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Our Best Friends Know Us Better Than We Know Them: On Canine Face Recognition

by on April 18, 2013

As I have mentioned previously, I have a particular interest (though admittedly a casual one) in the cognitive sciences, particularly in the case of animal cognition. For this reason, I have been looking forward to the section on neural nets and mammalian memory since first perusing the table of contents. The complex layering of neural nets to facilitate the many mental processes involved in either reacting or dismissing any external stimuli (calling upon memory, conditioning, spatial relations, etc.) was incredibly interesting, as well as DeLanda’s knowledge on recent cognitive experiments in the animal world. I was amazed by the complex simulations that take into account recollection and retrieval schema, or “the mapping of relations of similarity into relations of proximity in the possibility space of activation patterns of the hidden layer. That is, objects that resemble each other become neighboring points in the neural possibility space, and vice versa, objects with a high degree of dissimilarity (faces and non-faces) end up as points that are far away from each other in the space of possible activation patterns” (98), which mimics the process of “successive approximation” (99). I thought this was all just amazing.

For that matter, DeLanda’s reference to language experiments in primates was also an interesting one. Through sign language, we now know that at least great apes (and I would argue dogs, but I will address this point in detail shortly) dream in images. I once read reports from a cognitive experiment discussing a gorilla that had been taught sign language. Said gorilla had a pet kitten (an actual pet kitten), who it was terribly fond of. Well, midway through the experiment, the kitten met an untimely end, which sent its gorilla friend into a depression. When researches noticed that the ape was particularly despondent one morning, they asked why it was upset, the ape then began to explain that the night before it had been playing with its kitten friend, and was sad that he was gone when she woke up. This was solid proof that not only was the ape dreaming in images derived from episodic memory, but also that it understood the difference between this nightly cognitive fiction and the real world (the ape asked if it could go back to sleep after having this conversation with the researcher, thus showing it understood that this meeting did not take place in the real world).

As heartbreaking and adorable as this story may be, it clearly shows the complexities of consciousness in at least our closest ancestors, but what of the four-legged friends that have traveled along side of us all throughout our evolution? The complex relationships between dogs and humans may have begun as a relation of mutual gain, but our canine companions have a far more complicated understanding of us than we have of them, as there are experiments that prove that dogs are the ONLY species that we can prove a definitive cognitive empathy with.

We may not notice, but we humans do something strange every time we look at another human face: we subconsciously look to the left side of a person’s face to accurately appraise their emotional state. Because of left-right orientation in our brains, the left side of a face provides a more accurate/honest outward showing of emotional states. As humans, we subconsciously recognize this, and through retina tracing software, we can show that we all know this and do it, quite literally almost 100% of the time. This is an instinctual awareness of meta-consciousness: we understand other humans we interact with are thinking creatures, and being the social animals we are, seek this tell to better negotiate encounters. No other animal does this, either with humans or other animals of their own species (this is partially because only a handful of species display internal emotional conditions through facial expressions: primates, dogs, cats, and horses form the bulk of the list, with the latter three being credited for the activity based on their co-evolution with humans, so it is difficult to deduce if this is natural in the species or a reaction to us). There is one exception, however: Dogs.

Our mutual evolutions are so closely linked that dogs, too, first glance at the left side of human faces in order to mitigate their interactions with us. This shows a complex understanding of human cognition, maybe not in exact detail, but this explains showings of sympathy or empathy that we notice in dogs (what pet owner hasn’t come home angry or depressed only to have their trusted friend hop in their lap and be particularly affectionate? This is why!).

So, I guess this has me curious about how simulations might be able to account for such interactions between species. This relation would seem distinctly different from previous models that account for predator and prey relations, and may fall more in the line of the social relations that come up in later chapters. Could a neural net (or more accurately, a set of neural nets) account for this? It would have to account for first, the emotional response of the human, the stimuli or inputs that caused this reaction, and the outputs that demonstrate it, then consider the inputs and outputs from the dog’s net, each of these processes involving many complex layers (the stimuli causing the emotional response, the individual processing, showing of emotional response, recognition in the dog, retrieval from memory sets of human physical reactions, separating the stimuli of the left side of the face from that of the right, constructing an appropriate reaction, then calling upon motor memory to accurately act on all of the results of this interaction). Can computer simulation handle such distinctly different approximations stemming from two entirely different process sets? I’d be curious to see how dexterous these simulations can be (though I am already impressed with the complexities they already account for).

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