December 6, 2023

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‘Pioneering’ study: Animals have imaginations, too

‘Pioneering’ study: Animals have imaginations, too

Rodents in the hole

Noos News

American researchers have shown in a new study that animals have imagination just like humans. They discovered this by releasing mice into a virtual environment and watching what was happening in their brains at the same time using a brain-computer interface.

It turns out that the animals were able to think about things and places that did not exist in their environment at that moment. The mice used their thoughts to imagine walking to a certain place or taking something to a certain place, even though they were not doing so at all at that moment. They can hold it for seconds, just like humans.

The rodents’ brain activity was similar to that of humans when they think about places or experiences. This activity occurs in the area responsible for spatial memory, which is the hippocampus. In the experiment, the mice were able to activate that brain area voluntarily, in order to think about places where they were not at that moment.

This ability is not only important for memories, but also for forming an image of the future. Researchers say this is a form of fantasy. “Being able to imagine something is one of the cool things people can do,” researcher Albert Lee said of the study. “We’ve now discovered that animals can do it too, and we can study that.” The scientists published their results in the journal Science.

“The research is innovative, creative and without a doubt groundbreaking,” says Annabelle Dufork of Radboud University, who was not involved in the study. In her view, this shows that imagination in animals is a voluntary process: it is about purposeful brain activity, not an episodic, dream-like activity.

As a philosopher, Dufork herself researches the imaginative powers of animals, and was awarded the Radboud Prize for Science last year. Many indications of animal imagination have already been found in the behavior of animals, but strong scientific evidence for this has been missing until now. “This study shows that imagination is intentional and purposeful.”

Empathy and self-recognition

Many traits that until recently were considered uniquely human also appear to occur in animals. Monkeys appear to be able to make moral decisions, and many animals can empathize with the feelings of others of their kind. A few years ago, it turned out that tiny weeds can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Two chimpanzees at Beekse Bergen safari park

Control of prosthetics

The researchers themselves also anticipate practical applications for this discovery. The brain-computer interface used in the study is increasingly being used to control prosthetic limbs, as in the case of paralyzed Dutchman Geert Jan Oskamm. They hope that new knowledge about the hippocampus will contribute to this further.