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Can Animals Imagine Things That Have Never Happened?

The research, and many others like them, suggest that animals (at least rats) imagine alternatives before they take them. They can imagine routes they’ve never taken and can do so in a goal-directed fashion.

THOMAS HILLS: ‘The possibility that animals might have imaginations strikes some as anthropomorphic—we are projecting our own qualities into the minds of animals. This was a problem for psychology for a long time and helped fuel the era of behaviorism, a time when animals weren’t supposed to have thoughts. Or, at least we weren’t supposed to talk about them…

But neuroscientists began recording from animal’s brains to “see” what they were thinking. Using brain imaging techniques that can record from cells in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, researchers could see that certain cells were active in specific places. We now call these hippocampal place cells.

But researchers also discovered something they didn’t quite expect: Animals imagine alternatives before they take them. The place cells in the animal’s hippocampus show patterns of activity that sweep ahead of the animal’s position in a contiguous, connect-the-dot pattern. These forward sweeps go around corners and travel down the arms of mazes, considering different alternatives in succession.

These forward sweeps, sometimes called sharp-wave ripple complexes, are now understood to enhance learning. If they are interrupted, animals learn less well. They happen while animals sleep in apparent dreams. They also happen when animals are awake, in those moments of rat-like reflection. Like other forms of exploration, they are more frequent when animals have less experience with a decision. In other words, the less that animals know about an environment, the more likely they are to have imaginings about it.

But is this really imagination, or are the animals simply replaying past experiences?… A number of researchers have now shown that rats can imagine novel events during their sharp-wave ripple complexes… These results, and many others like them, suggest that animals (at least rats) can imagine routes they’ve never taken and can do so in a goal-directed fashion. These imaginings appear to reflect planning behavior used to guide future action because animals most often took one of the paths they were imagining.

The fact that animals can imagine things, dream, and perhaps even tell themselves a kind of story based on their own desires, is a fascinating idea. It’s not likely to surprise anyone who has watched their dog bark and chase objects while sleeping in the middle of the living room floor. Except, your dog could be dreaming about something it’s never actually done, like fighting dragons (or at least tractors).

If they can imagine, one can’t help but wonder what kind of cognitive system is required for such a feat. What other implications do imaginings create? Does an animal that can deliberate about its future enjoy some modicum of free will? Might an animal that imagines also know that it is imagining? Might it know the difference between the real and the imagined? Might it, therefore, know the difference between its real self and what it could be?’  SOURCE…

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