Most of what we know about ourselves, and our brains in particular, has either been picked up through intuition — or through extensive testing on lab rats.
Which is why neuroscientist Dr Kelly Lambert’s latest experiment, teaching rats how to drive tiny custom-made vehicles, should be of great interest to anyone curious about our place in the world.
In the study, Lambert and her team, based at the University of Richmond, separated rats into two groups. One half lived in normal lab cages, while the other was placed in an “enriched” environment, full of toys, pinecones, grassy areas, and ladders.
After a while, the rats were taught how to drive specially created vehicles. These were essentially plastic bottles on wheels, controlled by an aluminium plate and a series of wires. By touching the wires in different places, the rats would painlessly complete a circuit and direct the ‘car’ to drive forwards and backwards, or steer left and right.
This is something Lambert had done before. Using a mixture of “old-fashioned psychological behavioural training techniques and Froot Loops,” as she says in a video with the magazine WIRED, her team had been able to get rats to drive.
What’s different here, was to test to see whether the “enriched” environment — likened to Disneyland — had an impact on how quickly these skills were learned.
What Kelly Lambert found
And an impact it had. Only those that had grown up surrounded by toys and external stimuli were able to correctly navigate towards their sugary reward four times in a row.
In addition, by analysing hormone levels in their poop, Lambert discovered that stress levels decreased among rats while they were driving around. This occurred even in the ‘extinction trials’, when the Froot Loop reward was removed, suggesting that the act of driving could be classed as enjoyable. Therapeutic, even.
What does this mean?
On a very simple level, the experiment shows that the sort of environment rats grew up in had a great effect on how well they are able to learn a new skill.
This is something we’ve long known about our own development. Give babies and children a larger quantity and better quality of stimulation — toys, building blocks, stories, more opportunities to play — and they, on the whole, grow faster.
Lambert’s experiment is further proof that the more varied our environment, the more ready we are to adapt to and learn new things.
It also suggests that learning a new skill, whether a language or a sporting activity, is, on its own, a good way for us to reduce stress. Even if there’s no sugary cereal at the end of it for us.
Speaking to WIRED, Kelly Lambert, who alongside her distinguished academic career has made a name translating complex neuroscientific concepts into books on tackling depression and emotional crashes, put it like so: “Humans need engagement with our physical worlds, and our social worlds, and our brains need experience to develop. I think it [the findings] can be generalised or translated to the human brain.”
And about lab testing in general?
In the interview, Lambert concluded with something more wide-reaching. As the rats in the enriched environment learned much more quickly than those in lab cages, which is their home for pretty much all biomedical trials, she wondered whether the validity of most neuroscience results could be called into question — and whether it’s time for research to become more complex.
“I think we need to step up our game as scientists, and look at something besides a rat and a mouse, and look at behaviours beyond pressing a bar or turning right or left in a simple maze, because even the rat brain can do so much more than that.”