IImagination is the faculty of the mind that adds life and color to our existence, transforming us into the infinitely perplexing and captivating creatures that we are – creatures that err, transgress and suffer, but also imagine, organize and invent. According to the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, the imagination sculpts every aspect of our experience, from the most intimate to the most public. It is by his grace that we anticipate future events, sympathize with others when they are in pain, and even fool ourselves into thinking that an ersatz treatment has cured us simply because a doctor prescribed it. – the famous placebo effect. It is also by the grace of the imagination that we dream. As Montaigne said in his sixteenth-century essays, to dream is “[rove] in the vague space of the imagination.
Although widely considered a humanist, Montaigne recognized that humans are not the only beings endowed with this quasi-magical ability. “Even brute beasts,” he writes, “are as subject to the force of the imagination as we are; control dogs, which . . . barking and shaking and jumping in their sleep; so horses will kick and neigh in their sleep. These facts can only mean the following, he concludes: when sleep overcomes them, the minds of these creatures become absorbed in the act of building dream worlds, imaginary mental holograms of reality itself.
Today, empirical research on animal sleep suggests that the prodigious French essayist was right in thinking that other animals are also subject to “the force of the imagination”, at least as far as dreaming is concerned. In my new book, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal ConsciousnessI review this research and closely examine its scientific, philosophical and ethical implications.
While most of this research is fairly recent, some is already half a century old. For example, in the late 1960s, French physician Yves Ruckerbusch, who headed the Laboratory of Physiology and Pharmacodynamics at the National Veterinary School in Toulouse, wondered what happened to horses (Equus caballus) when the night falls. Do they sleep like us? Is their sleep cycle divided into different phases like ours? And if so, are they experiencing that particular phase of the human sleep cycle known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep during which dreams typically occur?
Using EEG technology, Ruckerbusch discovered not only that horses experience their own version of REM sleep, but that during this phase of their sleep cycle, they exhibit levels of neural and behavioral activation reminiscent of waking life. That is, during REM sleep, their brain, and to some extent their body, behaves in a way normally associated with the waking experience, even when giving all the cues for it. sleep (closed eyelids, lowered body temperature, etc.). For example, their brains produced an electrical signature indistinguishable from that of the waking state while their bodies exhibited what Ruckerbusch called “spectacular motor manifestations,” including movements of the eyes, limbs, and even nasolabial muscles. At one moment the horses in his study were perfectly still; the next day their bodies were a spectacle for all to see – a rapid eye movement here, a nasal twitch there, a tarsal thrust there.
Ruckerbusch doesn’t use the term “dream,” but it’s a clear way of making sense of what was happening to his four-legged research subjects. In all likelihood, these horses were dreaming, wandering in that “vague expanse of the imagination” to which Montaigne drew attention. Ruckerbusch even points out that the horses’ neural and behavioral displays coincided with physiological changes that usually indicate a dream sequence, specifically accelerated breathing and heart rate.
Can you imagine a better testimony to the power of the animal spirit than its ability to invent alternate realities during sleep?
Since the 1970s, Ruckerbusch’s findings have been replicated in dozens of other animals, including dogs, rats, elephants, primates, birds and cephalopods. In 2010, for example, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that sleeping rats could mentally visualize scenes of behavioral sequences taking place in places with no corresponding location in the real world, i.e. places that exist only in their imagination. It means that Homo sapiens are neither the only beings who dream nor the only ones to move in the world guided by what Aristotle calls the fantasticthe soul’s capacity for sensitive imagination – a capacity which, like Montaigne, Aristotle sometimes extends to “beasts”.
In when animals dream, I argue that the mere fact that animals dream poses a formidable challenge to that bastion of traditionalism that is the human-animal divide, raising provocative ethical questions about the status of animals as moral subjects to whom we have obligations. urgent and inexorable ethics. This fact also frustrates the common view that only humans are “cognitively free” because only we can free ourselves from our immediate surroundings through acts of the imagination, while the rest of the animals remain forever trapped in the here and now. The dreams of other species elegantly refute this claim by suggesting that non-human life forms also stage mental escapes from reality during sleep, fleeing the physical world around them and rushing into an imaginary world of fantasy. subjective.
Can you imagine a better testimony to the power of the animal spirit than its ability to invent alternate realities during sleep? Can we imagine a more inspiring incarnation of the imagination itself?
David M. Pena-Guzman is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University.