Empathic and Fun-Loving Rats also Dream of a Better Future

New research shows rats may dream of their future just as humans do

Posted Jun 30, 2015

People who are lucky enough to share their homes with dogs often laugh when they see their canine companions twitching, often whining, and doing something they describe like chasing another animal in their sleep. We dream, and there is no reason not to think that many nonhuman animals (animals) also dream. However, it's another matter to figure out what animals might dream about because they can't tell us in any way that we easily can understand. 

Researchers who study dreaming have to resort to extremely invasive procedures that involve implanting electrodes in animals' brains and then killing them to learn about the possible content of animal dreams and where it takes place in the brain. And, they are discovering very interesting facts about what other animals dream. For example, a new study published in eLife by a team of researchers at University College London with the unwieldy title, "Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space," has shown that dreaming by rats may "support preparation for future experiences in novel environments."

The original research paper, that is highly mathematical and technical, is not an easy read and a good review by Jessica Mendoza called "Daydream believer: Rats dream of a better future" does a good job of making the results intelligible to non-researchers. She begins, "It seems humans are not alone when it comes to dreaming of a better life for themselves: apparently, rats do it, too. When at rest, rats and mice conduct mental rehearsals of journeys toward a desired future, such as a tasty treat, researchers at University College London (UCL) have found." Further, "The researchers used electrodes to monitor the animals’ brain activity in three different situations: first, as the rats were shown food they couldn’t access, then as they rested in a separate area, and lastly, as they walked to the food. They found that brain cells involved in navigation showed similar activity when the rats were resting and when they were walking to and from the food, indicating that the brain was simulating or preparing future paths leading to a desired goal." 

What this all boils down to is that the ability to imagine future events may not be unique to humans. One of the researchers notes, “What’s surprising here is that we see the hippocampus planning for the future, actually rehearsing totally novel journeys that the animals need to take in order to reach the food.”

Knowing about these results is important for a general audience because more and more research on the cognitive and emotional lives of animals is clearly showing that we are not alone in being able to accomplish complex tasks, solve difficult problems, or to experience a range ranging emotions. Rats, for example, are known to display empathy, to read the pain in the face of other rats, to enjoy being tickled, to enjoy playing, and to experience regret (please also see and). 

One would think based on these research findings, all of which have been published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, that the U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act would grant rats at least some protection. Nonetheless, the federal Animal Welfare Act doesn't protect rats (or millions other animals) and rats aren't even considered to be "animals." I realize that some might be incredulous to learn that rats aren't animals but a quote from the federal register does in fact read, "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research" (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004). 

We know enough right now to stop using rats for invasive research. Legislators and researchers themselves should rally to stop harming and killing these fascinating, smart, and sentient rodents. Many researchers come to know rats up close and personal -- some even name them --and you'd think they would be the most likely people to say something like, "Okay, enough's enough, we can't continue to use and abuse these amazing animals so let's stop doing it." 

Researchers themselves are upping the ante as they continually demonstrate just how smart and emotional rats and other animals truly are. One would imagine that there simply has to be some conflict as they continue to perform invasive research that results in a good deal of pain, suffering, and death. As Alka Chandna writes in an excellent essay published in The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum called "Rats Have Empathy, But What About the Scientists Who Experiment on Them?," "At least one such experimenter recently acknowledged the inherent conflict: 'The more we do experiments like this, the more we wonder if we should do experiments like this.'” The same researcher also notes, "if we want to study pain and pain treatments, 'there is no alternative. Tissue cultures and computer simulations won’t work. We must do animal experiments, as we will never get ethical approval to do these tests on humans.'” Of course, there are numerous non-animal alternatives that are extremely reliable, but he and others simply choose not to use them. It's about time they did. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservationWhy dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)