Pigeons seem to dream of flying: New study reveals tantalizing secrets about bird minds

Pigeons seem to dream of flying: New study reveals tantalizing secrets about bird minds

At first glance, pigeons may not seem like the brightest of birds. With their bobbing heads, awkward gaits, and dull-sounding “coo” sounds, pigeons are often mistaken for being downright silly pests. Yet a recent study in the journal Nature Communications suggests pigeons may be more sophisticated than humans often assume.

The reason is simple: This study provides the first ever evidence that pigeons and, consequently, other birds are capable of dreaming.

“The study of dreams has fascinated scientists since the early days of sleep research.”

To learn this, German researchers raised a group of 15 pigeons to be comfortable with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and infrared video cameras. In doing so, the scientists were able to closely monitor the pigeons’ brains while they slept, a feat that was easier for the birds because they were used to machines that would likely keep them awake.

Apart from this problem, they monitored a number of biological functions that help us understand sleep. The fMRI provided insight into their brain activity during sleep and the flow of their cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is believed to clear toxic proteins and other wastes from the brain during sleep through the glymphatic system. Similarly, the scientists monitored the birds’ eye movements and pupil size, which can also be used to determine their sleep status.

Gianina Ungurean, a researcher in the Avian Sleep Group for the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence, was a corresponding author on the study. Ungurean spoke to Salon via email about the team’s most significant findings. The larger goal of the research was not, after all, simply to learn about the dreams of birds. Scientists want to understand how all organisms, including humans, engage in the act of dreaming.

“Studying dreams has fascinated scientists since the early days of sleep research,” Ungurean explained. researchers.

Despite these limitations, however, the scientists learned that “birds, like humans, experience REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep associated with the most vivid dreams.” They similarly learned that many of the same brain regions that are active in humans during REM sleep, “including the higher visual and association areas,” are also active in birds. The same was true of the avian amygdala, which is believed to regulate emotions in birds just as it does in humans; likewise it is active in sleeping birds as well as sleeping humans. Finally, building on previous research showing that birds constrict their awake pupils when they experience strong emotions (such as those involved in courtship), the researchers found that the birds “show the same pupil constriction during REM sleep.”

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Because “birds rely heavily on their vision … birds might experience visual dreams like humans do.”

“In summary, our results do not provide definitive evidence that pigeons dream, but they lay the groundwork for future research to address this fascinating question,” concluded Ungurean. the purpose, if any, that dreams serve.”

When asked what pigeons might be dreaming about, Ungurean replied that because “birds rely heavily on their eyesight and that large portions of the visual system were active during REM sleep, birds might experience visual dreams like humans do.”

This isn’t the first study to dive into the science behind nonhuman dreams. In 2022, Chinese researchers publishing a study in the journal Neuron revealed that they had exposed various species of sleeping animals to a chemical called trimethylthiazoline, which is strongly associated with predators. When they did, they found that the animals were quicker to wake from their sleep states if they were in a REM cycle than if they were in a non-REM cycle. Additionally, they found that neurons in a brain region called the medial subthalamic nucleus gave their animals a lower threshold for awakening during REM cycles and were more likely to be defensive once awakened.

“Together, our results suggest that adaptive responses of REM sleep may be protective against threats and uncover a critical component of the neural circuitry underlying them,” the authors concluded at the time.

Humanity’s knowledge of birds has also made great strides in recent years.Vinciane Despret, a Belgian philosopher of science and associate professor at the University of Lige, recently wrote a book entitled “Living as a Bird” which summarizes the our current scientific knowledge on which to speculate how birds process reality.

“I think time really isn’t the same for birds as it is for us humans,” Despret explained, adding the latter. “We don’t always live in the same time: if you’re in trouble or you’re sick, time will seem long, and other times, when you’re just enjoying something, time seems too short. It seems, for example, that as you get older, time in we live in isn’t the same where when we were young the years didn’t go by so fast, but when you’re past 60, the years start coming faster.”

Birds, by contrast, have a perception of time that “is very, very different,” Despret said. “Sometimes they live in the pure present, but when they sing, for example, they have to negotiate and manage time. Because what is song? It’s music. And music is about time management.”

At the same time, Ungurean’s study also shows that bird brains are much more similar to human brains than people might realize. If nothing else, the study suggests that birds could perhaps be replaying well-established memories of their experiences during sleep, just as humans do.

“Although it remains to be demonstrated, it is possible that cortical replay could be associated with or even take place during dreaming,” Ungurean told Salon. “This suggests that birds might have comparable requirements for memory consolidation and could potentially employ similar mechanisms to mammals.”

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