You probably know that rats are smart. But how smart are they really? They’re capable of solving complex mazes and learning tricks, but are they also capable of abstract thought and do they have emotional intelligence?
These are all excellent questions, and I’m going to answer them in this article. Let’s dig in!
Rats smarter than humans? Maybe…
According to the Harvard Business Review, rats can be smarter than people in certain scenarios.
Ben Vermaercke and his colleagues at KU Leuven gave two cognitive-learning tasks to lab rats and students. With both tasks, the human and rat subjects were trained to distinguish between “good” and “bad” patterns and then tested on their ability to apply that know-how to new types of patterns.
In the first task, the patterns varied on only one dimension — either orientation or spacing — and rats and humans performed it equally well. In the second, the patterns varied on both dimensions, and the rats did better than the humans. Quite a shocking result.
Of course, the result of this experiment does not mean that rats are necessarily more intelligent than humans overall. But it does prove that in certain tasks that require intelligence, rats have humans beat. The researchers who performed this experiment explained the better performance by rats due to the fact that humans took a different approach. Humans seek rules, even where there are none, while rats employed what they call a similarity-based categorization strategy: The rats check if a pattern looked like the “good” targets it saw in the training.
In addition, research has also shown that even though the rat brain is smaller and less complex, the human and rat brain have remarkable similarities. Both consist of a vast amount of highly connected neurons that are constantly talking to each other.
The Abstract Intelligence of Rats
More studies have been done that show that the intelligence of rats goes even further than initially thought. People used to think rats were practically blind; now we know that their visual abilities are pretty advanced. Scientists have done research showing that rats can tell the difference between a movie that features a rat and one that doesn’t. David Cox and his colleagues at Harvard have reported that rats can recognize a 3D object even if its size changes or it’s been rotated, all of which show just how smart rats really are because these are examples of abstract intelligence that many animals are not capable of.
If you own a rat, you’ll probably have some anecdotal examples of how smart your rat can be. They can solve complex mazes, learn their name, learn tricks, and so much more. All of these things are not possible without intelligence. Because of their remarkable intelligence, rats are one of the most interesting pets to own. They’re very engaging animals and just observing their behavior is a lot of fun, let alone playing with them.
The Emotional Intelligence of Rats
In addition to abstract intelligence, rats also have emotional intelligence, which means that they display empathy and care for other rats.
Since the 1950s and ’60s, behavioral studies have consistently shown that rats are far from the egoistic, self-centered creatures that their popular image suggests. It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a fellow rat suffering.
Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness, which shows that they’re selfless enough to help another rat in need, even with no benefit to themselves.
Also, it’s been proven that rats would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves. Rats care for one another, and by extension, they also care for their owners. They’re remarkably social animals that can form incredibly strong bonds with their owners as well as other rats.
Regret, planning, and bartering…
Moreover, rats are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favor to another rat, but also that the favor can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they can even display something that appears very close to regret.
Rats know what they don’t know!
In addition, a 2007 study from the University of Georgia showed that rats are capable of reflecting on mental processes. What this means is that rats possess the ability to think about what they know or don’t know. The study used a clever way to discover this. In the study, the rats were offered rewards for classifying a signal as either short or long. As in most such tests, the “right” answer led to a large food reward, while a “wrong” answer led to no reward at all. The twist, however, is that before taking the duration test, the rats were given the chance to decline the test completely. If they made that choice, they got a small reward anyway.
If rats have knowledge about whether they know or don’t know the answer to the test, we would expect them to decline to answer most frequently on difficult tests that they’re not sure they know the answer to, and this is indeed what happened, thus showing that rats are aware when they do not know something.
All of these studies show that rats are highly intelligent animals that live and experience the world in a way that’s not all that different from us humans. It’s very possible that rats are smarter than dogs, but they unfortunately are not treated with the same respect. Rats are often unfairly stigmatized as stupid and dirty animals, but I hope that this video has shed some light on their true capabilities and can help shed the stigma. Rats are incredible animals that deserve more love than they currently receive.
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