Do you ever get the feeling that your dog knows right when you’re about to leave for work or fill his food bowl? A study out of Northwestern University has found that animals likely have a much greater sense of how time works than we think. According to People, the study showed that pets have a sort of internal clock that switches on when they are waiting for something. Perhaps this occurs when you go to the kitchen to grab a treat for your dog, or when you’re finding his leash before taking him on a walk.
The study, which was based on the brains of mice, discovered that there are a set of neurons in the animal’s brain that become activated and work similar to that of a clock. Daniel Dombeck, the associate professor of neurobiology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, headed the study. Dombeck placed particular emphasis upon the medial entorhinal cortex of mice. This is an area of the brain that is focused on memory and the perception of time. He explained that when it comes to achieving a desired result or reward, animals are able to understand the time it takes to get it.
“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,” Dombeck said. “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.”
The study involved having mice undergo a physical test that ended with a reward. The mice would have to make their way through a sort of small obstacle course, made up of doors and hallways. Upon completion of the course, they would come to a small door, behind which their prize was hidden. The mice quickly caught on that after six seconds the door would open and reveal their prize. Even when the experimenters removed the physical door, the mice still remembered its location. Upon reaching the point where the door once was, they still paused and waited for six seconds to receive their prize.
“As the animals run along the track and get to the invisible door, we see the cells firing that control spatial encoding,” Dombeck said. “Then, when the animal stops at the door, we see those cells turned off and a new set of cells turn on. This was a big surprise and a new discovery.”