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Beware rats that dream

January 30, 2001

Beware rats that dream



In answer to the question that has been gnawing at humanity for centuries, scientists announced last week that, yes, rats do dream.

Scientists quoted in the Washington Post last week called the news "really exciting." You may have noticed, though, that everything is really exciting to scientists. If they discover a new, one-celled plant, it is "really exciting." If the tectonic plates shift one degree to the east it is "really exciting." If a radio telescope picks up a soundwave from space that goes ztzzztzzz instead of zzztztzzz it is "really exciting."

Of course, when you squeeze one eye shut and stare through a microscope lens with the other for eight hours every day, even getting cottage cheese instead of sour cream on your baked potato is liable to be "really exciting."

However, I think most everyone would agree that on this one, the scientists are right. The fact that rats dream is indeed really exciting. Or really frightening, one of the two.

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"If animals dream, it suggests they may have more complex mental functions than had been appreciated," the article states.

Now, would that be complex as in more neurons per square centimeter of brain matter, or complex as in rats may at this very moment be plotting to take over the world?

It's all a little more serious than Dr. Seuss had in mind when he wrote:

"A moose is asleep,

He is dreaming of moose juice.

A goose is asleep,

He is dreaming of goose juice.

The trouble begins,

When the moose and the goose,

Start dreaming they're drinking,

The other one's juice."

But now look what's happening, according to scientists:

"The fact that we see this in rodents does suggest they can evaluate their experience in a significant way. The ability to recall, reflect and evaluate prior experience is something that goes on in animals at many levels. They may be thinking about more than we had previously considered."

You have to wonder, what does a rat have to "reflect" about? The meaning of garbage? Are she rats always asking he rats "What are you thinking?"

A rat is asleep,

He is dreaming

Of arming the entire

Rat population with

Semiautomatic weapons.

According to the article, scientists know the rats are dreaming because they measure their brainwaves while they are running a maze (the rats, not the scientists). When they measure the rats' brainwaves while sleeping, scientists detect the same brainwave activity, leading them to conclude the rat is dreaming about the maze.

They say this information will help science figure out - and I confess, I didn't know this was an issue - why humans sleep.

I guess "because we're tired" is too pedestrian an answer for scientific research. Armed with the wisdom provided by a bunch of rats, scientists now believe that sleep is a way people sort, process and file away information they receive during the day.

This idea that sleep is like a chance for us to alphabetize our recipe cards would be a lot more plausible to me if I could offer some kind of first-hand confirmation - such as remembering where I left my car keys the night before.

Whatever's wrong with my memory, sleep doesn't seem to help. And waking up only punctuates the problem because I always try to set the timer on my coffee machine so it will be ready in the morning. Invariably, this leads to:

1) A full pot of hot water because I forgot to add coffee.

2) Eight cups of freshly brewed coffee all over the kitchen counter because I forgot to put the pot back under the filter basket.

3) Nothing, because I forgot to turn on the switch.

Somehow, I'm afraid all the rat research in the world won't be able to solve this. But if it does, I'd be really excited.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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