Insects and other animals are often seen just "as very complex robots," Brembs said, for which behavior is determined solely by reactions to the outside world. When scientists observe animals responding in different ways to the same outside cues, such variations are typically attributed "to random errors in a complex brain," he said.
Brembs and his colleagues reasoned that if fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their environment, in completely featureless rooms they should move completely randomly. To investigate this idea, the international team of researchers glued the insects to small copper hooks in completely uniform white surroundings, a kind of visual sensory deprivation tank. These flies could still beat their wings and attempt to turn.
A plethora of increasingly sophisticated computer analyses revealed that the way the flies turned back and forth over time was far from random. Instead, there appeared to be "a function in the fly brain which evolved to generate spontaneous variations in the behavior," Sugihara said.
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