The vast majority of scientific studies are high-level examinations of the mechanics that drive our reality. They often involve massive collections of data that the average person couldn’t even begin to parse, and a lot of times that makes them excruciatingly boring to read about.
A new paper published by the University of Richmond in Virginia is most definitely not one of those kinds of studies. In fact, it sounds like something you might want to just do for fun, since it involves building tiny cars for rats and teaching them how to drive.
The study tasked adult rats with learning how to pilot a pint-sized vehicle made out of a clear plastic container and a small car-like platform akin to a radio-controlled car. Inside the container, an aluminum plate and small metal bars gave the rodents the power to move the vehicle forward or steer it side to side based on what bars were touched.
To test how well the rats could learn the skill of driving, they were trained to associate touching the steering controls with a food reward. Then, food was placed at an elevated height that was only reachable from a tiny window in the “car,” and the rats had to drive the car to receive the treat. All the while, scientists monitored hormone levels associated with stress and relaxation.
As you can see in the video, the rats seem to take to driving rather well, entering the small vehicle of their own accord and driving it to the intended destination. They even demonstrated the ability to turn the car around and correct their steering when they end up too far away from the food.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the rats’ driving skills is the fact that driving the vehicles actually relaxed the rats. The ratio of relaxation-to-stress hormones in the animals increased, suggesting that learning the new skill actually provided the rats with satisfaction.
This was further supported by testing passenger rats in remote-controlled vehicles. The rats that were being driven around remotely did not experience the stress relief that was present in the rats that learned to drive themselves. The team plans to push forward with the work and determine why the act of driving seems to reduce stress in the animals.