Rats Have Imaginations, Just Like We Do

Study has wide-ranging implications, and not just for rodents
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 6, 2023 10:10 AM CST
Rats Have Imaginations, Too
Wonder what this rat is imagining.   (Getty/CreativeNature_nl)

Humans aren't the only creatures in the animal kingdom with imaginations, a new study suggests. It seems that rats are in the club, too, reports Scientific American. In a series of remarkable experiments, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia concluded that rats are capable of visualizing objects and places not actually in front of them, "using their thoughts to imagine walking to a location or moving a remote object to a specific spot," per a release at Phys.org. The study in Science has implications that go beyond rodents, with applications for humans on everything from the design of prosthetic devices that use brain-computer interfaces to a better understanding of amnesia, per the Washington Post.

"The rat can indeed activate the representation of places in the environment without going there," says study co-author Chongxi Lai, per the release. "Even if his physical body is fixed, his spatial thoughts can go to a very remote location." Researchers figured this out with a system that took more than four years to build, a combination of virtual reality and the aforementioned brain-computer interfaces that essentially "eavesdrop on the brain's electrical signals," per STAT. The focus was on the rats' hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays a crucial role in regard to spatial memory and for "recollecting and imagining experiences," per the study.

A key part of the research: Scientists first monitored the rats' brain activity as they navigated a virtual world on a treadmill, rewarding them when they reached a visual cue with sweetened water. Then they removed the treadmill from the equation, meaning the rats could use only their mind, not their feet, to travel to a desired location. Most of the rats mastered the task. "To imagine is one of the remarkable things that humans can do," says Albert Lee, another co-author of the study, per the release. "Now we have found that animals can do it, too, and we found a way to study it." (More discoveries stories.)

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