Mind-Blowing Rat Imagination Experiment Unveils Surprising Insights: ScienceAlert

According to a new study, rats have been found to use their imaginations in a way similar to humans. This discovery shows that their thoughts are not always limited to the present moment, but can also travel through space and time.

Humans often find themselves lost in thought, transporting their minds to other places, recalling past events, or visualizing future scenarios. This mental process primarily takes place in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, and researchers have now observed similar activity in the hippocampus of rats.

A team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) conducted experiments using virtual reality (VR) combined with a brain-machine interface to investigate whether rodents could mentally imagine traveling to a specific location to receive a reward, even if they remained stationary.

The setup was adjusted so that physical movement on the treadmill did not affect the VR world. This compelled the rats to intentionally and voluntarily imagine moving to specific places or relocating objects to receive their reward, as indicated by brain scans.

Neuroscientist Chongxi Lai from HHMI reported, “The rat can indeed activate the representation of places in the environment without physically going there, even if his body is fixed, his spatial thoughts can go to a very remote location.”

The study suggests that if rats can imagine being in a different place, they may also imagine future scenarios or remember past events. This VR system opens up possibilities for future research in this area.

Interestingly, the rats quickly adapted to imagining movements through VR and were able to sustain their mental activity for approximately 10 seconds, a significant length of time.

Biochemist Timothy Harris from HHMI remarked, “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.”

The research has been published in Science.


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