Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From baseball to dogs and the field of his dreams

Having a ball: Brian Hare with his dog Tasmania. Hare began researching dogs as an undergraduate at Emory and went on to found the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. (Photo by Nick Pironio.)

By Paige Parvin, Emory Magazine

As an Emory undergraduate in the 1990s, Brian Hare led and published a study showing that dogs can follow a human hand pointing—something that chimpanzees, longtime stars of cognitive research, were much less capable of doing.

It all started when Hare didn’t make the baseball team.

An Atlanta native, Hare attended the Lovett School, where he claims he was “not a particularly good student.” But he did get the chance to intern at Zoo Atlanta, working with drills, baboon-like primates who evolved to have dramatically colorful rear ends so their companions could follow them in the jungle.

So when he arrived at Emory (which his mother and uncle also attended), “I was already really excited about animal behavior and studying primates,” Hare says.

He was also really excited about baseball—what he calls his first love. When he wasn’t allowed to try out for the Emory team because he was three minutes late to practice, it was a crushing blow. “But it was actually the hugest favor anyone ever did for me,” Hare says. “Because it gave me a year to think about it, and meanwhile I took classes with professors like Frans de Waal and discovered that I really loved psychology and evolutionary anthropology and studying primate behavior and cognition. I was hooked.”

In his sophomore year, Hare met Michael Tomasello, then a professor of psychology. That connection was a game changer. Tomasello immediately recognized Hare’s spark, and kindled it by encouraging him to participate in serious research. Hare was blown away.

“We had one conversation, and he said, here’s an idea we’ve been thinking about for a research project. What do you think?” Hare says. “And I was like, what? Did he just ask me what I think? This is the coolest guy I have ever met in my life. Right from the beginning, I was part of the team.”

At the same time, Hare had a choice to make about another team—the Emory baseball team, which was holding fall tryouts again. “I was this eighteen-, nineteen-year-old, starting to realize what science is really all about,” he says. “I was like, wait, you want to study animals to better understand people? I didn’t even know people did that. I had a new love. So the calculation was this—I could try out for baseball, maybe sit on the bench, or I could work with Mike Tomasello and do what I actually thought might be my dream. I could play science like I thought I was going to play baseball. So that’s what I did. I played science like other people play sports.”

Hare’s next breakthrough moment came when he started studying dogs.

Read the whole article in Emory Magazine.

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