Scientific Research: Asserting That Animals Can Dream
Part of the science behind whether or not our pets are actually dreaming is rooted in a study conducted by Matthew A. Wilson, a professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The study recorded the brain signals of lab mice in the areas that formed memory of experience (the hippocampus) and visual imagery (the visual cortex) during the day while running mazes, and again at night while they were sleeping.
Researchers monitored the mice to see if any matching brain wave patterns from the day session could be detected while the mice were sleeping. Detecting a matching pattern in the sleeping mice would indicate that the mice were, essentially, dreaming, re-living and re-visualizing the experiences they had when they ran the maze.
Based on their scientific approach, researchers did find that the mice were dreaming.
"Based on this approach, we have determined that animals do re-experience the day's events during sleep in a way that includes visual imagery (what they saw) and action sequences (what they did)", said Dr. Wilson. "That would satisfy most people's definition of dreaming."
Given their research, it's reasonable to apply the scientific findings to other animals, including our pets, and postulate that they do in fact have dreams.
What Do Pets Dream About?
Most likely, pets, like the mice involved in Dr. Wilson's experiment, dream (at least in some related fashion) about the day's events. But they may have more complex dreams than the mice.
"While human dreams may seem more complicated and include more varied experiences than our laboratory animals, that may be a result of the very controlled conditions that we use so that we can actually do the experiment," Dr. Wilson commented.
Why Do Pets Twitch or Move When They Dream?
The telltale sign that our pets are dreaming, their movements and ticks during sleep, are more complicated than you might think. To understand why they move, it's first essential to understand that, like humans, pets experience two types of sleep, a deep sleep (often associated with producing dreams) called REM sleep and non-REM sleep.
In REM sleep, a sleep that produces a dream, the cells in animals (and humans, too) that control muscle movement shut down, presumably to keep them from acting out their dreams (the equivalent of doggy sleep walking). This suppressed movement, Dr. Wilson notes, is what brings on the adorable twitching we perceive to be the sign that an animal is dreaming.
What Benefits Does Dreaming Have for Pets?
The full extent of the benefits of dreaming remains unknown in both humans and animals, and more extensive research is needed. With that said, it isn't impossible to scientifically speculate what some of the benefits of dreaming could be.
"We suspect that dreaming plays a role in processing memories, enhancing learning, and problem solving," says Dr. Wilson. "So if you are in the midst of training an animal, it is likely that dreaming is helping them to achieve those training goals."
So dreaming in pets not only makes them look cute, but also could be helping their training efforts? We'll take it, no questions asked!
What are your thoughts on the studies about dreaming in pets? Do you notice your pets when they dream? Share in a comment!