We pet owners have always suspected it…..our cats jump on us moments before our alarm goes off and our dogs sit by the front door at 5:45 pm each weeknight. Why? Because they can tell time, well figuratively that is, with science to prove it.
Daniel Dombeck, the associate professor of neurobiology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and colleagues, found the part of an animal’s brain that comprised “timing cells” or neurons that would give animals a sense of when something was supposed to happen. In mice this was found to occur in the medial entorhinal cortex of the temporal lobe.
According to news.northwestern.edu:
When planning the study, Dombeck’s team focused on the medial entorhinal cortex, an area located in the brain’s temporal lobe that is associated with memory and navigation. Because that part of the brain encodes spatial information in episodic memories, Dombeck hypothesized that the area could also be responsible for encoding time.
“Every memory is a bit different,” said James Heys, a postdoctoral fellow in Dombeck’s laboratory. “But there are two central features to all episodic memories: space and time. They always happen in a particular environment and are always structured in time.”
To test their hypothesis, Dombeck and Heys set up an experiment called the virtual “door stop” task. In the experiment, a mouse runs on a physical treadmill in a virtual reality environment. The mouse learns to run down a hallway to a door that is located about halfway down the track. After six seconds, the door opens, allowing the mouse to continue down the hallway to receive its reward.
After running several training sessions, researchers made the door invisible in the virtual reality scene. In the new scenario, the mouse still knew where the now-invisible “door” was located based on the floor’s changing textures. And it still waited six seconds at the “door” before abruptly racing down the track to collect its reward.
“The important point here is that the mouse doesn’t know when the door is open or closed because it’s invisible,” said Heys, the paper’s first author. “The only way he can solve this task efficiently is by using his brain’s internal sense of time.”
Our pets’ sense of timing is instinctive and therefore not surprising, as animals have always had the ability to sense the time of day when their prey comes to the water hole or when they to avoid the night prowlers starting their hunt.
So although our humanization of pets may seem cute at first, we should proceed with caution as animals possess many of the same intellectual capabilities as humans. They’re smart….too smart…..and the more details scientists unlock in their furry heads, the more we learn of how similar they are to us. And I’m not sure I want to know what they’re truly thinking. Ignorance is bliss…..
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, KDWN, and iHeart Radio.
She is also a Board Certified Family Physician and Assistant Professor at Touro University Nevada