January 23, 2004

What do mice dream about?


An estimated 25 million mice are used (and by "used", I mean "killed") in the course of scientific research every year. I don't really mind. Experiments on mice are vital to medical science in its ongoing quest to alleviate human suffering — a thing of which, being a human myself, I would like to see a whole lot less. Sorry, mice.

And all but the most grotesque scientific experiments have to be nicer than a mouse's usual fate. Wild mice don't die of old age. They're the Pringles in earth's food chain. As a super fast method of converting sunlight into meat, rodents are what Nature whips up a batch of when carnivores get the munchies.

As inconsequential as they are, then, it's always a shock to observe what clean, pleasant, surprisingly complex and independent little animals mice can be. They build things, groom each other, nurture their young, play, have distinct individual habits and preferences, seldom bite the Big Hand unless they're very frightened or in pain (and then a nip to warn, not injure), and are generally nicer, smarter and more complicated than a 99˘ puff of fur has any obvious reason to be.

The strains of mice used in laboratories are bred to such genetic homogeneity that they are said to be, for all practical purposes, clones. I wonder.




I'll bet if you repeatedly put a pair of those supposedly identical squeakers in a feeding cage, A would always head right for the banana chips while B went for the broccoli. They're like that. Given the very limited repertoire of behaviors mice have at their disposal, it's amazing how different and memorable individual mice may be.

And they have clever little hands that can pick things up and put them down on top of other things, or inside other things - something your smarty pants cat can't do. Mice do this all day long with a terrible, pointless earnestness.

They can learn to drink alcoholic beverages, sometimes with enthusiasm, which implies a capacity for joy - or at least anxiety. They have some degree of reasoning (though no amount of empirical experiment will convince them that a saltine cracker won't fit inside a toilet paper roll). More than once, I crept into the kitchen to find that something had tried to drag a lethal snap-trap down the mousehole. Many and many a raiding fur-head has been executed on the spot by this evil device, but they persist in trying to bring it home with them. Perhaps they think it's a magic peanutbutter dispenser. "Peanutbutter happens here! O! Peanutbutter happens here again! O!"

While I don't fear humanity may some day face down the great roiling tsunami of angry mouse spirits, I do wish we'd be a little more thoughtful about stirring tomato genes into their DNA.

And they may yet get Mouse's Revenge. Alone in clear acrylic boxes with a handful of cedar shavings in a brightly-lit laboratory eating pellets is about as antithetical to a mouse's happy inclinations as you can get. If, indeed, emotional well-being turns out to play a significant role in health, all our medical studies using mice are gefukt.


So, what do mice dream?

They undoubtedly dream. You don't need an EEG to know. Their legs pump, their faces work, their whiskers twitch. They sometimes wake up solemn and disoriented (not a healthy way for a professional prey animal to stir itself, one would've thought).

When a dog starts to jerk and jive snoozing on the hearthrug, someone is bound to observe he's chasing rabbits in his dreams. I see no reason to think it's that simple. When humans dream, all our thoughts and memories and sensory junk get jumbled into a big nonsensical mess of imagery, and the making-sense-of-things part of the brain does its best to make sense of it. That's what a dream is.

Why wouldn't it be the same for the little mammals? Just because their mental inventory is small doesn't mean it's straight. Wouldn't mouse dreams be as screwed up and scary as anyone's?

I'm guessing mice dream they have three tails. Or that all the females in the world go into heat at the same time. Or they bite into peanut butter and it screams.

Do we really want to grow human ears on this animal's back?

    < alley oop!

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