I mean, what’s with all the secrecy over this??? Yes, my rat-owning friends…this means YOU. How come it never came up in general conversation over the years that rats have dreams?
This morning I awoke with the question, what do dogs dream about? How come they don’t get confused when they wake up? Do they recognise that they dream?…and other related questions regarding animal consciousness and so on. It prompted me to go online in search of the answers to these questions and to my astonishment, I discovered that researchers at MIT have been doing studies into rat dreams that seem to prove that not only do rats remember but they also learn from dreams…and it’s likely they dream in pictures…reports on the latest research is here and the original study here.
The researchers are apparently trying to find out about human memory/sleep/dreams and how these things correlate neurologically, and so their analysis has tended to highlight the implications for the human brain. But in lots of ways I think it’s just as interesting if not more interesting to consider the implications for our understanding of rats and other animals. It seems that half the rat-dreams in the first (2001) study were dreams about re-running the mazes they had tested that day. What I would like to know is: what were the other half of the rat dreams about?
I couldn’t work out whether half the dreams meant half the rats dreamt about the maze while the other half didn’t or whether it meant that all the rats dreamt about the maze half the time. Without evidence, I prefer to think the former, just because its more fun to speculate about.
In a NY Times story (which goes into some more detail about the experiments) one of the MIT researchers from an earlier study 10 years ago says:
“It’s not necessarily that rodents have simpler dreams, but we limit them by restricting the experiences they have. It might be that a wild subway rat’s dreams are as exciting as our epic adventures in sleep.”
So, what sort of memory does a rat have? It can remember, in dreams, the maze …are the other dream-memories of the cage, or dinnertime (i.e. out of the cage) or rat conversations or rat sex it might have had, or might they be of long-time rat memories i.e. when it was a baby rat perhaps, its siblings, the struggle to survive and grow? I don’t get very far with this unless I anthropomorpsise in some way by imagining myself as a rat…As a human, I might dream about my new job by dreaming about the new workplace I had walked around that day, noticing the unusual painting on one wall, the browning thirsty plant on the corner by the lift, the echoing corridor on the way to the smoking room and the curious way the light slants in it, the dragon-faced receptionist etc. In a way, I can see how these sense and thought impressions are adding to my learning the actual, physical way around the place – the layout.
Obviously, the social layout is just as important in a new job, if not more so – I might therefore dream more symbolically about the place. Maybe the dragon-faced receptionist appears in my dream, except he appears as a scary-looking calendar made of fire. Only I know it is the receptionist, because I understand that a calendar represents time-keeping, the fire is a reference to dragons, and it’s scary-looking because I’m worried about my crap timekeeping affecting how I get on in the job (the receptionist being the person who has to keep an eye on latecomers).
If rats dream, then maybe they can dream symbolically. Maybe the ‘other’ rats were dreaming in this way.
So, what if the rats who show the pattern of the maze in their neuron dream sequence – those rats that subsequently the researchers found to be more successful in navigating the maze, and were thus classified as the cleverer, more successful rats – what if these were really the LESS evolved rats? Somehow the other rats, some of whom had figured the maze and its function without dreaming – maybe they’d already spoken to ex-lab rats* or heard the semi-mythical tales passed down orally from rat to rat, in their mother’s rat milk as it were – these were the rats who remembered these tales when they themselves were confronted with the maze (OK, they might have been lab-bred also, but are you telling me those rats were isolated from each other their whole lives, or that if they were, then the isolation cages were in rooms that were 100% secure from rodent-type invaders?) Imagine, then, that these are the cleverer rats, who dream symbolically about their life as a lab rat, who have maybe figured out that they might not need or want to be ‘successful’ in the maze. Maybe these rats, understanding that their lives are in some sense futile, try and fuck up the tests because they realise they truly are ‘working for the man’ – any rat data from these tests is incidental to the main topic, Man and Man’s brain, or worse, the data that shows stuff about rats, in a world that is largely unfriendly to them, will be actually used to exterminate the ‘vermin’ problem more effectively: understanding all this, rats say “Fuck YOU!”
Maybe they even get apathetic, thinking of suicide and a quicker death…yeah you can laugh at the idea of rats thinking philosophically or metaphysically but I say this: maybe SOME can. In evolution terms, these might not be the rats that survive to dominate the species, for the very crushing reasons I have just outlined, for the very awareness that one is often seen as nothing more than parasitic vermin… maybe that might persuade a rat to hurry along to the next life…
Yes this is all very far fetched. But then SO WERE FRIGGING RAT DREAMS as far as I was concerned yesterday.
*What do you mean there’s no such thing as an ex-lab rat?