A study done at the University of Richmond in Virginia has shown that rats can master the art of driving a tiny car, unlike some humans. The car, constructed out of a clear plastic food container on wheels and featuring an aluminum floor with three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel, allowed the rats to zoom around square arenas up to four square meters in size. The rats were rewarded with bits of Fruit Loops cereal when they touched the copper bars, which moved the car forward for the center bar, and left or right for each of the other bars.
Scientists encouraged the rats to further their driving skills by placing food treats at increasing distances around the arena. The rats learned to navigate in the car and used different steering patterns to reach their tasty rewards. The study also showed that learning to drive seemed to relax their furry test subjects and that rats driving themselves seemed more relaxed than their counterparts that were passengers in remote controlled cars.
This seemed to reiterate a previous study done by Dr. Kelly Lambert and her team at Richmond, showing that rats tend to be less stressed after mastering a difficult task such as digging up buried food. Dr. Lambert says that rats may get the same sense of satisfaction that humans get when we perfect a new skill. In humans this is called self-efficacy or agency.
Lambert feels that researchers may be able to replace traditional test mazes with driving tests to study neuropsychiatric conditions. The effects of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease on motor skills and spatial awareness, or the effects of depression on motivation could be investigated with the use of these driving tests.
Follow-up experiments are being planned to understand how the rats are able to learn to drive, which area of their brain is involved and how driving seems to reduce stress on the rats.
It remains unclear why, exactly, many humans remain such bad drivers. If rats can do it, what’s our problem?