Pigeons Seem to Dream of Flying: A New Study Unlocks Tantalizing Secrets About the Minds of Birds
A recent study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that pigeons may be more sophisticated than humans often assume. The reason is simple: This study provides the first evidence ever that pigeons — and by implication other birds — are capable of dreaming.
German researchers raised a group of 15 pigeons to be comfortable around functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as well as infrared video cameras. By doing so, the scientists were able to closely monitor the pigeons’ brains as they slept.
Key Findings of the Study:
– Birds, like humans, experience REM sleep, which is the sleep stage associated with the most vivid dreams.
– Many of the same brain regions which are active in humans during REM sleep, including visual and higher associative areas, are also active in birds.
– The avian amygdala, which is believed to regulate emotions in birds just as in humans, is likewise active in sleeping birds just as it is in sleeping humans.
– Birds exhibit the same pupil constriction during REM sleep.
– Birds might experience visual dreams like humans do.
Gianina Ungurean, a researcher at the Avian Sleep Group for the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence, was a corresponding author on the study. Ungurean spoke to Salon by email about the team’s most significant findings. The broader goal of the research was not, after all, merely to learn about bird dreaming. Scientists want to understand how all organisms, including humans, engage in the act of dreaming.
What Pigeons Might Dream About?
When asked what pigeons might dream about, Ungurean replied that because “birds rely heavily on their vision, and that large portions of the visual system were active during REM sleep, birds might experience visual dreams like humans do.”
Other Studies on Non-Human Dreaming:
This is not the first study to dive into the science behind non-human dreaming. 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 this, they discovered that animals were more quick to wake up from their sleeping states if they were in a REM cycle than if they were in a non-REM cycle.
Humanity’s Knowledge of Birds:
Humanity’s knowledge of birds has also seen some important strides in recent years. Vinciane Despret, a Belgian philosopher of science and associate professor at the University of Liège, recently wrote a book called “Living as a Bird” that synthesized our current scientific knowledge to speculate about how birds process reality.
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 may perhaps replay consolidated memories from their experiences while sleeping, just as humans do. “Although it remains to be proven, it is possible that cortical replay could be associated with, or even take place during, dreaming,” Ungurean told Salon. “This suggests that birds may have comparable requirements for memory consolidation and could potentially employ similar mechanisms as mammals.”