The things rats dream about

June 30, 2015 • 10:15 am

by Grania Spingies

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest (4.1.168-170)

I should preface this with my regular caveat: I-am-not-a-scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My level expertise only allows me to say the rough equivalent of “Oh hey, this looks interesting.”

As a child I often used to watch my dogs dreaming. Clearly they were running, sometimes barking and huffing, sometimes panting. It used to fascinate me, and I wondered where in their heads they were running. Was it a field they knew? Were they alone or with companions? Were they chasing prey? Running for the fun of it? What does prey even look like to Canis lupus familiaris who may never met anything particularly prey-like in their modern suburban existence?

Once one of them barked so loud in her dream that she startled herself and woke up with a jump. I’d never seen a Labrador look more sheep-like when her eyes met mine. Unfortunately there was no way to ask her what she had been seeing in her dreams.

But it seems that remarkably a team of scientists has had a glimpse at what rats dream about.

Not an actual lab rat

Kiona Smith-Strickland over at Discover Magazine writes about a new study where a team looked at rats and determined remarkably that they dreamed about going places they were aware of but had not yet explored. She explains the process:

First, researchers let rats explore a T-shaped track. The rats could run along the center of the T, but the arms were blocked by clear barriers. While the rats watched, researchers put food at the end of one arm. The rats could see the food and the route to it, but they couldn’t get there.

Then, when the rats were curled up in their cages afterwards, scientists measured their neuron firing. Their brain activity seemed to show them imagining a route through a place they hadn’t explored before. To confirm this, researchers then put the rats back into the maze, but this time without the barriers. As they explored the arm where they had previously seen the food, the rats’ place cells fired in the same pattern as they had during sleep.

Neuroscientist Hugo Spiers, who co-authored the study, notes:

People have talked in the past about these kind of replay and pre-play events as possibly being the substrates of dreams, but you can’t ask rats what they’re thinking or dreaming. There is that really interesting sense that we’re getting at the stuff of dreams, the stuff that goes on when you’re sleeping.

You can read the paper here:

Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space by H Freyja Ólafsdóttir, Caswell Barry, Aman B Saleem, Demis Hassabis, Hugo J Spiers

32 thoughts on “The things rats dream about

  1. So…we might not yet have androids, but, when we do, it seems they actually will dream of electric sheep — else they wouldn’t actually be androids.

    And, on the dystopian front…another part of me worries about what this demonstrates about the future potential for “them” to see what we’re dreaming about, and judge us accordingly….


    1. “on the dystopian front…”

      Yes, run your thoughts through a properly trained neural net and we draw our own conclusions. Luckily neural nets are always right.

      On a positive note it could give us an objective account of our own thought’s. That could be interesting. Probably not, at least not my thoughts (sex, drugs and a bit of rock and roll).

      People are already remarkably good at guessing each others thought’s and capabilities; like our best A.I. they are always right. So there is maybe not a real difference in the near future, I hope.

      As long as we don’t ask our I-phone :
      how am I feeling today?

  2. So last night my sleeping brain was exploring the possibility of going out in public without my pants?

    1. Are you willing to have electrodes attached, here, here, and there? Maybe we could all find out what that was all about. 😎

      1. I hate how the brain does its own thing during our sleeps. I mean, that’s a lot of time with us being conspired against.

        1. It’s not just during sleep – it likes to edit out a lot of information before it sends information to our visual cortex too.

  3. whenever I have a problem I can’t seem to solve, I sleep on it. When I awake, the solution is right there. (Hmmm: Does finding the solution cause me to awaken?)

    1. How? What problem did they solve? It seems to me their trainers solved the problem or them. Did I miss something?

  4. I am no neurobiologist, but I do not see how this is a controlled experiment. They are rather explicitly claiming that the rats were exploring part of a T-maze in their dreams b/c neural firing patterns in the dream resembled neural firing patterns when they were actually allowed to explore the maze. If there was a control there, I did not see it, but I should think one control would be to look at neural firing patterns when the rats explore a completely different maze. How do we know that these patterns mean they are dreaming about exploring a specific maze? Could it not mean that they were just dreaming about exploring in general?

  5. One of the earliest dreams from childhood I remember was when I was in the first grade and had a crush on a cute girl in my class. I dreamed I could fly and followed her down the hall and into the girls bathroom. I’ve always wondered if my dream reflected a T-shaped track I was forbidden to explore. It seems I may have been was right.

  6. I have to say that rat picture is adorable! I saw some rats at a pet store a couple of weeks ago & they were all snuggled – one even laying on top of another. I would love to have rat pets but my dog would not & her preference might turn out badly for the rats.

    1. Rats do make great pets…messy, yeah, but really lovable. (At least the pet rats I’ve met.) It’s really fun having them climb all over you…excellent climbers like cats. Having d*gs around (and ours are a hunting breed) does preclude that idea though.

    2. Yes, rats do make excellent companions! Agreed that dogs may not necessarily be a good match (depends on the dog), but if you’re ever in a situation that would allow for a rat, there are many out there available for adoption from shelters or specific small animal rescue groups.

      1. Yes, I sometimes look through petfinder for the small and furry animals. If I ever got guinea pigs again, I’d adopt one from there.

  7. Grania, I love your posts! Do you have your own blog somewhere?

    My kittehs meow and run in their sleep almost every night. Sometimes they even purr. It’s adorable.

    Once one kitteh was meowing and running in his sleep and he rolled over and off the sofa onto the floor. Teh poor kitteh woke immediately, looked sheepish for a second, then looked at me as if to say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

      1. Don’t forget your part time job as well. Blog sitter. 😎

        And, thanks from me as well for holding the fort.

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