Rats Learned to Drive Tiny ‘Cars,’ Subsequently Became More Resilient

The task of driving is often considered a pain, with all of the traffic and honking and lack of 3D transportation grids. Which is why it’s surprising to hear that when researchers at the University of Richmond encouraged rats to learn how to drive, the experience ended up making them more emotionally resilient, and even relaxed. Although the driving itself may have not been the key to improving the rats’ moods, but rather the simple act of learning a new skill.

The researchers who turned the rats into automobile pilots, led by U of R Psychology Professor Kelly Lambert, published their findings in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, noting in the abstract for the study that when rats were taught how to drive “rodent operated vehicles,” or ROVs, they subsequently showed biological signs of feeling accomplished (our word).

In a New Scientist report on the findings (via ABC News), it’s noted that 17 rats were taught how to use the tiny cars by using Froot Loops as rewards. In order to obtain bits of the sugary breakfast cereal, the rats needed to climb inside the tiny cars—which were constructed out of plastic food containers, motors, and wheels—and steer themselves toward their rewards. They did so by manipulating a ‘steering wheel’ made of three copper bars that allowed for movement in the forward, right, and left directions.

Researchers taught rats how to drive and it made the rats more emotionally resilient.

Lambert told New Scientist that “[The rats] learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward.” This process of learning how to do something they’d never done before helped the rats to achieve a feeling of satisfaction, which Lambert says was derived from what is referred to in the context of human learning as a sense of “self-efficacy or agency.”

The researchers were able to determine that the rats gained this feeling of satisfaction based on measuring the ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone to corticosterone in the rats’ feces throughout their driving education. The researchers found that levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, which counteracts stress, increased, while the levels of corticosterone, which are markers of stress, decreased.

Although numerous insights were gleaned from this experiment, including the benefits of “enriched” (more or less dynamic) environments in regards to the rats’ ability to learn, it seems the most important takeaway from this experiment is that learning how to do something novel can lead to an array of positive feelings. Which means anybody looking to feel more content in life may want to start with being more driven.

What do you think of these little automotive rodents? Does this experiment inspire you to get out there and learn some new skills, or just eat a bowl of Froot Loops? Let us know in the comments!

Images: Kelly Lambert, University of Richmond 

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