Research Finds That Rats Have Imagination

Lisa Selvaggio
by Lisa Selvaggio

Do animals have imagination? Many people wonder if animals are capable of imagining things in their minds the same way that humans can. Could a rat, for example, use their imagination? Recent research has shown that, yes, they can, at least to a similar degree as people.


Diving into the Way a Rat’s Mind Works

If you’re sitting at home or in your office, and you decide to think about your friend’s house, your favorite vacation spot, or anything in between, you can easily see it in your mind, and you can imagine yourself moving through it. But experts wondered if animals can do the same.

A study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus uncovered that rats are capable of seeing places in their mind (places that they aren’t physically in). In other words, they can think of distant places whenever they want. This is a type of imagination that makes it possible for the animals to think of themselves in a place that they were in in the past, and also gives them the ability to envision themselves in that place in the future.  

A Brain-Machine Interface Showing How Rats Think

How did experts figure this out? They surgically implanted electrodes in the brains of rats. Then, they put the rats on a treadmill ball inside a virtual reality environment. On a screen, there was a goal that the rats were to move towards and, as they moved, their place in the virtual space changed on the screen to make it appear real. The rats were given a treat once the goal was reached. And, as the rats moved through the experiment, the researchers recorded the activity of the hippocampus in the brain.

Next, the rats were put back in the virtual environment, but they weren’t put on the treadmill, so they had to use brain activity to navigate the space. Once again, the experts looked at the hippocampus as the rats went through the experiment and reached their goals. And, in yet another test, the rats remained stationary while directing an object in the virtual environment to a particular goal using their mind.

All of this is to say that experts determined that rats can imagine. Also, this research sheds light on the fact that rats are pretty amazing, which is why they make great pets, and it further proves that we still have a lot to learn about them and other animals.

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Lisa Selvaggio
Lisa Selvaggio

Lisa Selvaggio is a freelance writer and editor, and our resident cats-pert, with certifications in pet nutrition and pet first aid. She enjoys producing content that helps people understand animals better so they can give their pets a safe and happy home.

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