Yes, your cat does know his feeding schedule and your dog knows when she is usually walked — or at least our pets have an idea of how time works, says a new study from Northwestern University.
New study finds ‘timing cells’ in the brain may underlie an animal’s inner clock
The new study from Northwestern University has found some of the clearest evidence yet that animals can judge time. By examining the brain's medial entorhinal cortex, the researchers discovered a previously unknown set of neurons that turn on like a clock when an animal is waiting.
Does your dog know that it took you twice as long to get its food as it took yesterday? There wasn’t a good answer for that before,” said Daniel Dombeck, who led the study.
"This is one of the most convincing experiments to show that animals really do have an explicit representation of time in their brains when they are challenged to measure a time interval."
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 this theory, researchers created a virtual test for their mice subjects called the “door stop task.”
For this experiment a mouse would run on a physical treadmill through a virtual environment made up of a hallway leading to a door. By running the environment, the mouse learned that if he followed the hallway halfway down to a door, the door would open after six seconds, and then he'd receive a reward. Once the mouse learned where the door was, the door was replaced with an invisible door. Even when the mice in the study could not see the door, they still knew to stop at the invisible door's location and wait six seconds before continuing through the invisible door to get their reward.
This discovery of “timing cells” means your cat is likely aware when you are 10 minutes late with his breakfast so don't be surprised when you get the judgmental face
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