Rats: Thinking About Failing

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This week, a new animal joins our showcase of “underestimated animal geniuses”: the humble lab rat. It seems that lab rats working for University of Georgia neuroscientist Jonathon Crystal and graduate student Allison Foote are smart enough to undergo “metacognition,” or thinking about thinking, an intellectual behavior previously observed only in such lauded-for-their-brains animals, such as monkeys and dolphins.

As Gisela Telis’s ScienceNOW article explains, “People experience metacognition … on a daily basis; anyone who’s ever had a sinking feeling during an exam knows it well.” The problem, of course, is how to learn when an animal has such a sinking feeling!

In this case, Crystal and Foote set up a game for the rats:

First, the researchers trained the rats to associate a short burst of static—lasting about 2 seconds—with one lever, and a long burst of static-lasting about 8 seconds—with another lever. Pushing the correct lever yielded a tasty reward of six food pellets; pushing the incorrect lever yielded no food and no chance to try again. The rats also learned that they could get half the reward without making a choice, by poking their nose into a food trough.

The rats apparently recognized their own inability to “answer” correctly.

When the test began, the bursts of static were easily distinguishable, and the rats “played” the game, pushing the correct lever rather than going for the shoo-in trough solution, and consequently receiving a bigger reward. But then Crystal and Foote decided to make things more challenging by playing “intermediate bursts of static” that were neither short nor long. The rats apparently recognized their own inability to “answer” correctly, and instead avoided answering wrongly and went straight for the free food in the trough. The food trough was then removed, and the rats—as expected—performed poorly, failing to distinguish whether these intermediate sounds were short or long bursts.

Studies that uncover the unexpected intelligence of animals can go a long way toward muting the misapprehension that apes (especially chimpanzees) are “nearly human” due to their high intelligence. Of course, it’s true that chimps are smart within the animal kingdom, but this falls apart as evidence for evolution when other intelligent animals are revealed:

“It’s an important study,” says University of California, Los Angeles, metacognition researcher Nate Kornell. “It tells us that the mental processes of rats are more similar to ours than we thought.” It may also tell us that supposedly smart animals don’t have the market cornered on awareness, he adds, because “if this is true for rats and monkeys, then it’s probably true for other mammals as well.”

You can read about other clever creatures in previous News to Note entries—see February 24, item "#2"; January 27, item "#4"; December 2, item "#7"; November 11, item "#5"; and November 4, item "#3".

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