Do you know that the London taxi drivers need to remember a map of 25,000 streets to get their licence? This shows the immense capacity of the human brain to remember maps. We can visualise these maps in our heads. But is it a capability that is restricted to the human brain? There are so many animals that are master navigators, for example rats but can they also imagine the world like we do?
A recent study answers these questions, where rats were made to run on a spherical treadmill in a virtual reality created space by giving them rewards for reaching specific spots in that VR space. This movement created a pattern of brain activity. Next the rats were taken off the treadmill but shown the same VR space, although they were not moving physically but their brain created the same pattern of activity as when they reached out to various objects while on the treadmill. Although, it is not easy to imagine what the rats would have been imagining but this does qualify as imagination of a route by creating a mental map.
And in another set of experiments - called as the Jedi experiments - the brain activity of the rats could move a box on a screen in this VR space. The study offers possibilities of understanding how we navigate our surroundings and aiding individuals with sensory deficits to move around safely.
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Opening the lid