About two years ago, researchers at MIT's Center for Learning and Memory proved that rats dream in much the same way that humans do. This study compared the brain activity of rats learning to run a maze with the brain activity of the same rats later on as they slept. In half the subjects, the patterns recorded were so similar that researchers concluded the rats were actually dreaming of the very same maze.
The study was conducted as part of a larger investigation into the function of dreams, which are widely thought to help process short-term memories and turn them into long-term memories. As an aside, it also furnished the first scientific evidence of dreaming in a non-human animal.
"The likelihood that this would occur by chance is exceedingly small," said Dr. Matthew Wilson, who headed the study.
Can a rat tell the difference between dreaming and not dreaming? I mean, they're smart, but that would require a specific kind of intelligence, one that I can't say for sure that rats have. Dreams sure seem to really be happening when you're having them, so perhaps rats just accept the fact that certain events seem to take place twice. Then again, since rats, like people, tend to do the same things over and over, this might not be that big a deal for them -- just another iteration of the same maze.
Do rats, like people, have dreams that are variations on recent events? Does the maze ever suddenly have a wing that wasn't there before, and maybe at the end of it there's a succulent piece of candy? Or a bloodthirsty cat, and suddenly it's a nightmare? In rats or in humans, what purpose do dreams like that serve? Just the other day, for example, I dreamed I was trying to flush body parts down a broken toilet, and that sure never happened; so what was my brain trying to process there, exactly?
I dream about mazes sometimes too.
When you give a rat a piece of candy corn, the rat will turn the thing over and over in its paws, tasting it cautiously. Though I cannot prove this, I am pretty sure that as it does this, the rat is thinking something like "What? What? Food? What?"
Eventually the rat will determine that the candy corn is, indeed, food. At least, I can't find any candy corn left in the cage.
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