Bojack Horseman looks in the mirror.
(Netflix)

Thanks To Science, We Can Know What Horses Are Feeling, Including Depression

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We’ve all looked at a pet or an animal and thought to ourselves, “What are they thinking?” Sure we can guess from purrs or bites or many other external indicators how an animal is doing, but we don’t really know for certain because we obviously can’t read their minds. Except now, thanks to science, we kind of can!

Scientists have developed a new mobile headband that allows them to detect brain waves in horses. Using this tool, they can look into the animal’s minds and know what they’re feeling. At least, that’s the idea. The technology isn’t exact but it is promising. The device is an electroencephalogram (EEG), which has been used on human brains for over a century, but only in recent decades have scientists used it to study how different feelings look in the brains of humans and in some animals. However, that previously took place in labs or with large machines; this new technology allows researchers to measure the brain waves of animals in real time our in the real world.

The idea came from Ethologist Martine Hausberger of the University of Rennes in France, who wanted to know if animals were depressed. Hausberger had been frustrated by the fact that EEG measurements on animals required complicated wiring or even the implantation of electrodes into their heads. She took this need to neurophysicist Hugo Cousillas, who spent the next six years developing a wireless EEG monitor for horses that was non-invasive.

But would the device deliver results they could measure? The answer was yes. They used the headbands on a group of 18 horses, half who lived in confined stables and half who lived in open pasture with more room, and there was a measurable difference between the brain waves of the two. As the team reported in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, the horses who lived in confined spaces had more gamma waves than those that lived in open spaces, and gamma waves are associated with anxiety and depression.

So, not only can we read horse minds now, but the results tell us that horses don’t like to live cooped up and honestly that’s not surprising. Then again, some scientists are skeptical that we can interpret animal brain waves the same way we interpret human brain waves. There’s a lot more research needed, but the good news is that with this tool, much more study in this area is now possible.

(via Science, image: Netflix)

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Author
Jessica Mason
Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.