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Do Animals Have Imagination? Here's What Research Says

Do Animals Have Imagination?
Humans and animals seem to share various behavioral traits with each other. But, do animals also have imagination?
Sucheta Pradhan
Last Updated: Jun 7, 2017
"Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning."
- Gloria Steinem
We humans share our planet with a whole lot of other living species; the plants and the animals. Plants, though living, are highly sessile in nature, meaning that they lack the ability to move around. In this respect, humans and animals are alike. Both of them can move around as much as they wish, and carry out simple and complex tasks. However, we humans have always enjoyed an upper hand whenever it comes to handling complex situations and/or thinking in a creative manner. Humans have been blessed with a power to imagine the unseen, even the unreal. Moreover, we also possess the capacity to turn our imaginations into reality, as several examples have shown. Animals simply do not possess this ability of creative imagination. Or do they?
What is Imagination?
Imagination is an ability, largely associated with humans, to form and configure a set of new ideas and images, which can neither be seen and heard, nor sensed and touched. In other words, an imagination is that idea which is beyond human senses, and yet is clear in the human mind. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term imagination refers to, 'the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses'.
Imagination involves both tangible and intangible perceptions, which may be real as well as fictitious in nature. Dreaming is also a part of imagination, as it brings forth all the thoughts that occur in an animate mind. However, the only difference between dreams and other forms of imagination, is that the former occur when the mind is in a subconscious state, when an individual is asleep, whereas the latter is the product of a conscious mind, when a person is awake and active.
It is extremely important to note that, it is the thoughts which trigger imaginations, and therefore, both of them can never be separated from each other. However, an individual's imagination need not always affect his/her social behavior, and hence, it can be clearly differentiated from belief.
Animals and Imagination
A lot of studies have been made with respect to the functioning of animal brains, and the way different animals may perceive things, known and unknown. Though, it cannot be said for sure, as to whether or not animals actually bear an ability of creative imagination. Several studies and observations indicate that they definitely, to a certain extent, possess an ability to assume things. Take dogs, for instance, they have an inherent instinct to dig with their feet, and hide their possessions in the holes that they dig. Given a chance, most dogs would display this instinct. However, have you ever noticed a pet dog trying to dig the floor of your house, and then 'hiding' its favorite toy at the place that it has, well, scratched? Most people having a pet dog may have noticed this. Does this act indicate that the dog is perceiving this 'hiding spot' as some place in the wild. Does this suggest that the dog can actually imagine things? Well, that's difficult to say; however, the possibility is that the dog's brain might be forming some visual images, thus triggering its senses to act in a particular manner.
A recent study conducted by the BBC, with respect to the imaginative ability in animals, highlighted that, apart from the ability to assume things, animals can also pretend things to a large extent. As one of their case studies in this context, they closely observed a Bonobo, named Kanzi. Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who kept note of Kanzi's behavior, observed that Kanzi had a habit of hiding invisible objects at specific 'hiding spots', such that only Kanzi would find them again.
Later on, the ape went to its hiding spots and pretended to remove those invisible objects and eat them. Further, Kanzi also seemed to interact with the others of its kind, by pretending to hand the invisible objects to them and watching what they did with them. The study showed that animals do possess the kind of mental complexity that is required in order to 'make believe'.

Another form of imagination, as mentioned above, are dreams. It is a proven fact that most animals do dream, much like we humans do. The BBC researchers studied the brain activity of rats, as the rodents were trying to learn to navigate through complex mazes, while awake. When the brain activity of the same rats was studied while they were asleep, the researchers got similar results as when the rats were awake. It was concluded that the rats were navigating through the mazes even while they were asleep, in their dreams. This shows that, like humans, even the animal mind is active while it is asleep. Their brains can produce visual imagery, in the form of dreams, thus shedding some light on their imaginative capabilities.
The Limit of Animals' Imagination
Despite the fact that several studies have been conducted, with regards to ability of creative imagination in animals, nothing substantial has been proven till date. There is no denying the fact that animals can imagine; however, whether or not they can actually distinguish between fantasy and reality, is still obscure.
Studies indicate that animals can imagine to a certain extent, assume the existence of non-existent things, or pretend that one object is another, and act accordingly. However, it is ambiguous as to whether these things reflect the imaginative powers of animals or their basic instincts, such as distracting a rival's attention. In the absence of solid evidence, it is very difficult to say whether animals have imagination or not. However, with all the hypotheses which we have at our disposal, it can be stated that creative imagination might indeed go far beyond the domain of humans.