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Study on Rats show importance of hippocampus in imagining the future

People often dream about the things that they plan on doing in the days, weeks, or months ahead. Sometimes, they even dream about things that aren’t even guaranteed to happen. Maybe it’s a dream vacation that they’ve thought about, or a date with a person that they have thought about for a long period of time.

According to new research, rats store virtual maps of the world they live in, inside the portion of the brain that is known as the hippocampi. The hippocampi is located on both sides of the brain, and is the same place where humans store the maps they have in their heads. Interestingly though, this was something that scientists didn’t really think would have been happening inside the mind of a rat.

As it turns out the study suggests that rats are utilizing those maps, and dreaming about the places that they’re going all the time. Hugo Spiers of the University of London pointed out that for humans it could be something as simple as seeing a holiday brochure for a certain place where they’d like to visit – and then dreaming about it that night.

The breakthrough in the study comes from the portion of it that determined when these portions of the brain are activated. When a person enters a space that they know, this portion of the brain is activated and figures out where things are, and how to navigate the space. Similarly, rats have this functionality, and that same portion of the brain is again activated when they sleep.

This activation when sleeping is the same as what humans experience when they’re in a dream, and moving throughout a space – like a vacation destination, or even a physical place, like work, home, or a friends’ house. More interestingly though, the dreams definitely skew goal oriented.

The team pointed out that, “It seems the rats were only simulating a journey that had food at the end.” This is a unique method for determining how the brain works in this regard because it shows that there is a specific set of goals in mind when they’re working through this type of dream pattern, or thought process. The specific outcomes though depend how effective the overall action is, or how well the rat knows the space they’re dreaming about.

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The food in this case, acts as a driver to push them to think more vividly about the things that they’re seeing. This makes them more driven to get to what they want, and the more thought they’re able to put into it – makes them more able to move quickly throughout the process of navigating to that food.