Do Animals Dream Essay

These two essays are from Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ new book Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and are reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Do Animals Dream?, by Sy Montgomery

The electric eel exhibit at the New England Aquarium has a feature that makes it a favorite. Whenever the eel is hunting or stunning prey, the charge powers a voltmeter above his tank. It lights up when the eel is using his electricity, and allows you to see the invisible—like magic.

One day I saw another magical thing happen in the tank. Thanks to the voltmeter, I was able to watch the eel dream.

It happened when I was standing in front of the exhibit with Scott Dowd, the lead aquarist for the freshwater gallery, watching the eel resting motionless at the bottom of the tank.

“I think he’s asleep,” I said to my companion.

“Yes, that eel is catching some serious z’s,” he agreed.

Being hard-core fish enthusiasts, we continued to watch transfixed while the electric eel slept. And that’s when it happened: A big flash shot across the voltmeter display—and another and another.

Electric eels hunt while swimming forward, wagging their heads to and fro, sending out electric signals that bounce back to them, sort of like a dolphin’s echolocation. But he was still motionless. So what was the flash for?

“I thought the eel was asleep!” I said to Dowd.

“He is asleep,” he replied.

We realized at once what we were almost surely witnessing. The electric eel was dreaming.

“It would appear that not only do men dream,” Aristotle wrote in History of Animals, “but horses also, and dogs, and oxen; aye, and sheep and goats. . . .” It was obvious: Like most of us, Aristotle had watched sleeping dogs twitch their ears, paddle their paws, and bark in their sleep. Surely other animals dreamed as well.

But since Aristotle’s day, more “modern” thinkers denied that animals could dream. Complex and mysterious, dreams were considered the exclusive province of so-called higher minds. As brain research advanced, however, researchers were forced to concede that Aristotle was right. Animals do dream. And now we are even able to glimpse what they dream about.

Since the 1960s scientists have understood that our dreams happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of the sleep cycle. During this time our muscles are normally paralyzed by the pons of the brain stem, so that we don’t act out our dreams. In 1965 researchers removed the pons from the brain stems of cats. They discovered the cats would get up and walk around, move the head as if to follow prey, and pounce as if on invisible mice—all while asleep.

By 2007 we would get an even more vivid picture of animals’ dreams. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists Matthew Wilson and graduate student Kenway Louie recorded the activity of rats’ brains while the animals were running a maze. Neurons fire in distinct patterns while a rat in a maze performs particular tasks. The researchers repeatedly saw the exact same patterns reproduced while the rats slept—and they saw this so clearly they could tell what point in the maze the rat was dreaming about and whether an individual rat was running or walking in his dreams.

The rats’ dreams arose from the hippocampus, the same area in the brain that seems to drive humans’ dreams. It’s an area known to record and store memories, and that supports the notion that one important function of dreams is to help us remember what we have learned.

Of course, it’s important to a lab rat to remember the right way to run a maze. So if rats dream of running mazes, what do birds dream about? Singing.

University of Chicago professor Daniel Margoliash conducted experiments on zebra finches. Like most birds, zebra finches aren’t born knowing their songs; they learn them, and young birds spend much of their days learning and rehearsing the song of their species. While awake, neurons in the forebrain known as the robustus archistrialis fire when the bird sings particular notes. The researcher was able to determine the individual notes based on the firing pattern of the neurons. While the birds were asleep, their neurons fired in the same order—as if they were singing in their dreams.

Much less work has been done on fish than on mammals and birds. No one has found REM sleep in fish—yet. But that does not mean they don’t dream. Interestingly, no one has discovered REM sleep in whales, either. But whales almost surely dream. They are long-lived, social animals with very big brains much like our own, and for whom long-term memory consolidation is crucial. And if you were looking for rapid eye movement in sleeping owls, you’d never see it—because owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets. That’s why they need to turn their heads around, Exorcist-style. Yet owls’ brain waves show they dream, too.

Fish do sleep, however—that much is well known. It’s been carefully documented that if zebra fish are deprived of sleep (because pesky researchers keep waking them up), they have trouble swimming the next day—just as a person would have trouble concentrating after a dreamless night.

What might an electric eel dream about? The voltmeter at the New England Aquarium showed us the answer: hunting and shocking prey.

Death of a Dog, by Elizabeth Marshall

One of the most devastating experiences we can have is the death of a beloved dog, whose loyalty we never questioned, who loved us all her life, protecting us, helping us, as close to us as any family member, sometimes closer. A dog lives for about fifteen years, whereas her owner may live eighty or ninety years and experience this terrible loss multiple times. It gets no easier.

Some of us then get another dog. The new dog does not replace the dog who died. Nothing could do that. But as is true with friends and family, our circle of love expands without limit. The new dog is wonderful, too. We’re charmed, and quickly we become devoted. This is normal. And then, after much too short a time, we lose that dog as well.

As before, we struggle to move on, just as we would if the loved one was a person. But for a person, there’s an obituary in the paper, also visiting hours at the funeral home followed by the funeral or memorial service and the burial in sanctified ground. Our grief is understood and honored, gifts to charitable organizations are offered in our loved one’s name, letters of sympathy fill our mailbox, flowers arrive at our home, more flowers are placed on the grave, and sometimes a monument is erected or something important is named for the deceased.

But if the dog dies? Nothing. Our mourning isn’t acknowledged, we don’t get a few days off from work, no flowers are involved, and there is no funeral. The burial is performed by us personally, perhaps alone with only a shovel and our tears. Others will sympathize, of course, but it’s we who concern them. They don’t mourn for the dog.

So a dog is like a body part, as important to us as our arms or legs. If we’re in the bathroom taking a shower and our dog comes in to be together, we are no more embarrassed by her presence than we are by the presence of our legs. But if a person comes in, we might grab a towel, the intruder would back out quickly, and a torrent of apologies would follow—the intruder should have knocked, the door should have been latched, on and on.

Thus losing a dog is like losing a leg. This would change our lives, and our family and friends would be deeply sympathetic, but we alone would miss the leg itself, and our supporters wouldn’t know or care what happened to it. We all know where people are buried or what happened to their ashes, but how many of us know what happened to the bodies of other people’s dogs?

After the loss, we’re very much alone. Most of us don’t talk about it. Instead, we keep the dog in our hearts, thinking of her when passing the places where we walked together, missing her warmth when she slept beside us, looking at her bowl, now dry and empty on the kitchen floor. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem after the death of his dog, Wessex, which begins:

Do you think of me at all, Wistful Ones?

Do you think of me at all, as if nigh?

The poem doesn’t end well—the dog speaks the last lines:

“Should you call as when I knew you,

I shall not listen to you,

Shall not come.”

The dog won’t come because he can’t, but the answer to his question is an emphatic yes. Do we think of you at all? We don’t stop. We say your name when we’re alone, as if you could hear us. We remember the first time we saw you and the last time, too—that moment when we knew you were gone.

The afterlife becomes a question. Some people say that animals go to heaven, while others say they don’t. If I arrived in an afterworld and saw only people, I’d know for a fact that my sins had caught up with me, because no place like that could be heaven and only humans go to hell. But I’m not sure there is an afterlife as we imagine it. So I keep the ashes of my dogs with instructions to mix them with mine and put us in the woods. We will then be together until the end of time, at least in molecular form. That’s not much, to be sure, but it’s something.

About the authors and the book:

Researching articles, films, and her twenty-one books for adults and children, author Sy Montgomery has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Rwanda, been hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels, and pink dolphins in the Amazon. Her books for adults include The Soul of an Octopus (a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist), The Good Good Pig and Birdology. The recipient of numerous honors, including lifetime achievement awards from the Humane Society and the New England Booksellers Association, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, border collie, and flock of chickens.

One of the most widely read authors on anthropology and animals wild and domestic, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has observed dogs, cats, elephants, and human animals during her half-century-long career, all of which was inspired by her lengthy trips to Africa as a young woman. Her many books include Dreaming of Lions, The Hidden Life of Dogs (a New York Times bestseller), The Social Lives of Dogs, and The Tribe of Tiger. She lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Tamed and Untamed, their first-ever collaboration, is an engaging collection of essays that offer extraordinary insights into the minds, lives, and mysteries of animals.

Purchase links: Chelsea Green   Amazon



I felt like a baby being coaxed, reluctantly, into dreamland. A few yards away, Jack was already there. His legs jerked helplessly, making him look vulnerable.


"What's Jack dreaming about?"

"Chasing rabbits," Loyd said.

"That's what everybody says, but I don't think all dogs dream about that. You watch a city dog that's never even heard of a rabbit—it'll do the same thing."

"How do you know they really dream?"

"They do. All mammals that have been tested have REM sleep, except spiny anteaters." [...]

Loyd asked, "What do you think animals dream about?"

"I don't know. Animal Heaven." I laughed.

"I think they dream about whatever they do when they're awake. Jack chases rabbits, and city dogs chase, I don't know what. Meter readers."

"But that's kind of sad. Couldn't a dog have an imagination, like a person?"

"It's the same with people. There's nothing sad about it. God, when I used to work for Tia sorting the pecans I'd go to sleep and dream about pecans, pecans, pecans." (12.140-155)

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