Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Does a Fly Know If It’s in Control?

Credit: Nick Valmas (QBI)

A tethered fly walks on a trackball controlling an object on a digital display, allowing its brain activity to be recorded at the same time. The fly moves the object to the front when it’s paying attention to it. Credit: Nick Valmas (QBI)

By Leonie Kirszenblat & Bruno van Swinderen

What do the brain waves of a fly placed in a virtual reality arena tell us about self-awareness in animals?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

When you step on your car’s accelerator, you know that it will go faster. We all know that our actions have consequences, but are animals also self-aware of their actions?

You may find this surprising, but even the tiny fruit fly that hovers around your fruit bowl is calculating her every move. Although her brain is infinitely smaller than a human brain, it is capable of many of the same operations, and may offer some clues to how our own minds work.

Being self-aware and in control of your actions changes how you see and interact with the world. Imagine you are driving to the airport. When you have driven this route several times, you learn how to get there. But if you’re always a passenger you may have no idea how to get there if you are suddenly confronted with the task of getting there on your own. This is one example of how, when you are in control, you pay more attention and learn better than when you are a passive observer.

We know that even insects can learn more efficiently when they learn through their own actions. Yet we still know very little about how our brains might be operating differently when we are in control compared with when we are just observing. This has important implications for learning in the classroom and beyond.

Why would we want to study this in the brain of a fruit fly? Fruit flies have been used in scientific...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.