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Rats have an imagination like humans and they use it often

A recent study from Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus has revealed that rats have surprising cognitive abilities, including imagination. The research suggests they can imagine and think about places and objects.

This revelation offers a brand new perspective on imagination, which was thought to be a uniquely human trait.

How to study rat imagination

In a collaboration between the labs of Tim Harris and Albert Lee, an innovative system was designed that fuses virtual reality with a brain-machine interface.

This allowed the researchers to delve into the realm of a rat’s inner thoughts. The real-time “thought detector” was designed to measure neural activity and translate what it meant.

Spatial memory

The results show that animals are capable of thinking about places or objects that are not immediately present, which is comparable to a human mentally planning a walk to a particular location. 

These internal experiences activate distinct neural patterns in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that is pivotal for spatial memory. According to the study, rats can voluntarily invoke these activity patterns to recollect remote locations apart from their current whereabouts.

Rats use imagination to daydream

“The rat can indeed activate the representation of places in the environment without going there,” said study first author Chongxi Lai. “Even if his physical body is fixed, his spatial thoughts can go to a very remote location.”

The ability to imagine locations away from one’s current position is fundamental to remembering the past and planning for the future. Therefore, the researchers believe their work shows that animals, like humans, possess a form of imagination.

“To imagine is one of the remarkable things that humans can do. Now we have found that animals can do it too, and we found a way to study it,” said study co-author Albert Lee.

Thought dictionary

The project was initiated nine years ago by Lai when he was a graduate student under advisor Tim Harris. Lai came up with the idea to test whether an animal can think.

Engineered with the help of Lee and Harris, the thought detector provides a direct link between the rat’s hippocampal activity and an interactive 360-degree virtual environment.

Creating a “thought dictionary,” the team translated hippocampal activity patterns into discernible experiences in the VR arena. With the rat operating a spherical treadmill, its movements are mirrored on a surround-screen. 

Simultaneously, its hippocampal activity is logged, laying the groundwork for the brain-machine interface (BMI) that can convert brain function into virtual actions.

Target locations

The researchers progressed to a phase where the treadmill was disengaged and the rat was rewarded for merely producing hippocampal activity reflective of a target location.

In the “Jumper” task, named after a movie, the rat uses thought to navigate to rewards. Similarly, in the “Jedi” task, the rat moves an object to a goal within the virtual space by thought alone.

Surprising concentration

The study’s implications are profound. Rats were able to precisely and consistently manipulate their hippocampal activity, suggesting that they can concentrate on a single location for extended periods – contrary to what one might assume about a rat’s attention span.

“The stunning thing is how rats learn to think about that place, and no other place, for a very long period of time, based on our, perhaps naïve, notion of the attention span of a rat,” said Harris.

Study implications 

This novel research not only provides insights into hippocampal function but also paves the way for advanced prosthetic devices that utilize similar principles. The utilization of BMI in this study offers a new pathway for probing and understanding the brain, with potential applications extending into the development of innovative prosthetic solutions.

Because BMI is increasingly used in prosthetics, this new work also opens up the possibility of designing novel prosthetic devices based on the same principles, noted the researchers.

This research may ultimately reshape our understanding of animal cognition and open new avenues for technological advancements in brain-machine interfaces.

More about rat intelligence and imagination

Rats have long been companions to humans, albeit often uninvited. These small rodents are frequently associated with negative connotations, such as carriers of disease or pests.

However, beneath their survivalist exterior lies a fascinatingly intelligent creature. Rats are capable of complex thought processes, activities that require imagination, and behaviors that rival those of larger mammals.

Rats’ cognitive capabilities

As previously discussed, rats possess cognitive abilities that allow them to solve problems. They can navigate mazes and even recognize themselves in mirrors, which is a trait once thought to be exclusive to higher mammals like dolphins and primates.

Researchers conduct maze tests to evaluate rat intelligence. Time and again, rats demonstrate not only the ability to remember routes, as mentioned previously, but also to adapt to changes in the maze’s configuration.

Social intelligence

The social structures of rats are complex and indicative of their intelligence. They live in hierarchies and can communicate with a range of vocalizations, some beyond human hearing.

This social interaction is critical for their survival, as it allows for the effective transmission of information, such as the location of food or the presence of predators.

Emotional perception

Rats display emotions and empathy, responding to the distress of their peers. Experiments have shown that rats are more likely to free a trapped companion than to indulge in a treat.

This emotional capacity suggests an understanding and consideration for the state of another, a characteristic of intelligent, social animals.

Rats’ learning, memory and imagination

Rats learn quickly and have excellent memories. They can be trained to perform a variety of tasks, from navigating mazes to pressing levers for rewards.

This ability to learn and recall information is a key indicator of intelligence. Moreover, they can apply past learning to new situations, demonstrating an understanding of abstract concepts.

While not as prevalent as in primates, rats have demonstrated the ability to use tools. In a controlled setting, they can be taught to use objects to reach a reward.

This shows a level of reasoning and problem-solving ability. Their dexterous paws allow them to manipulate objects, which is a sign of fine motor skills linked to cognitive complexity.

Communication skills

Rats communicate with one another through high-pitched sounds and pheromones. This communication is sophisticated and essential for survival, especially in wild populations.

They alert others to danger, find mates, and establish social bonds through these methods. Through these actions, they exhibit a nuanced understanding of their social environment.

Adaptability and innovation

Perhaps one of the most impressive demonstrations of rat intelligence is their adaptability. Rats thrive in a wide range of environments, from the wild to urban settings.

They can learn to avoid poisoned bait, a trait that frustrates human efforts to control populations. Their innovative behavior in overcoming challenges to survival underscores their intelligence.

Implications of rat intelligence and imagination

The intelligence and imagination abilities of rats has significant implications for how we view and treat these animals. In laboratories, rats are often used for research due to their cognitive similarities to humans.

Understanding their intelligence also impacts the ethics of their use in experiments and prompts a reevaluation of their treatment in the wild.

In summary, recognizing the intelligence and imaginations of rats is a step toward a broader appreciation of the mental lives of animals traditionally viewed as pests. Their capabilities challenge us to reconsider our relationship with them and highlight the complex beauty of animal cognition.

Video Credit: Chongxi Lai

The research is published in the journal Science.

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