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Amazing Experiment Gets Rats to Drive Tiny Cars for Science

©University of Richmond

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This headline might make you a bit skeptical. I mean…driving?

Well, if you’re a rat, it seems that driving a tiny car can actually be relaxing.

Which I guess makes sense, in that rats tend to lead pretty stressful, dangerous lives.

And no, the researchers didn’t just discover this on accident while they were fooling around with lab rats in tiny cars (swear!).

Researchers from the University of Richmond in Virginia were looking to prove that, by enriching a rat’s environment, they could both improve cognitive function and help sharpen their ability to learn complex tasks.

What they found was that mastering a complicated skill – like driving – reduced levels of stress in the process.

“The findings that the animals housed in a complex environment had more efficient learning in the driving task confirms that the brain is a plastic organ that is molded by our experiences to some extent,” explained study author Dr. Kelly Lambert. “I tell my students that they are accountable for what they do with their brains every day of their lives – more challenging and enriching lifestyles lead to more complex neural networks.”

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Research that shows learning to drive can de-stress rats calls to mind my blog post about the potential psychological effects of self-driving cars (which you can find by clicking on the link in the bio). . Humans also relax when engaged in tasks they've mastered, but as we transition to machine autonomy, people are using their learned skills less. . Does this mean we're losing an invaluable tool for stress-relief and confidence-building? Will our self-efficacy diminish as we slowly forget once basic skills like driving? . . . . . . . . . . #drivingrats #ratsdriving #ratsdrivingcars #selfdrivingcar #selfdrivingcars #selfdrivingvehicles #autonomouscar #autonomouscars #machineautonomy #ai #artificialintelligenceai #artificialintelligence #manandmachine #manversusmachine #manvmachine #manvsmachine #humanmachinesymbiosis #catrionacampbell #machinebehaviour

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The rats were given a rodent operated vehicle (a plastic jar on electric powered wheels that they moved forward and steered by touching a copper bar). The task is a complex one for rats, and required their cognitive, motor, and visuospatial skills to work together, but most were able to navigate toward the Fruit Loops after some practice.

The five rats living in the enriched environment performed better at their driving test and also maintained an interest in taking their cars for a spin, even after the treat was removed. The rats who were living in regular cases weren’t interested in the cars or learning how to drive them at all.

As far as figuring out the drop in their stress levels, well, researchers had to do some digging…through poop. The rat’s feces were tested for corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone, two hormones that mark stress and the control of stress, respectively. All of their poop showed a decrease in the stress marker and an increase in the stress controller as the rats continued their driving training course.

There’s no sure way to apply these findings to humans just yet, though the authors think it could have something to say about the way environment and mental state are linked.

“It reminds us that we can use challenging tasks with preclinical animal work to learn more about human challenging behavior and cognitive systems. We also see that the rats had healthier stress hormone profiles with the driving training. We think this learning task and operating the ROV may be an animal model for agency or self-efficacy – two elements that are critical for mental health.”

In the meantime, WATCH THE RATS DRIVE!

If you want to give it a try yourself, the rats seem to be saying that waking up and challenging yourself to learn something new every day is one way to make yourself a happier, less-stressed person.

And I know we could all use a little more of that.