How Rats Think and Why It Matters
Believe it or not, rats are smarter than a great number of other animals. In fact, some of their thought processes are comparable to the thought processes of humans. As smart as they are though, non-pet rats are still pests, and knowledge of how they think is an important weapon when fighting off an infestation.
Rats Can Think About Thinking
Rats are capable of an intricate thought process called metacognition, which is uncommon among non-human and non-primate animal species. Simply put, metacognition is the ability to think about your own thinking. More specifically, it is the ability to reflect upon and understand your own thought process, and to be aware of what you do not know. For instance, if you take a test and get stuck on a question, you can think back to your memories of learning the information. If you can’t remember, you understand that you do not have the proper knowledge to answer the question.
Metacognition is a form of self-reflection and it is considered a central part of being human. Most animals are either not capable of metacognition, or are capable of a very minimal form. Rats are part of a relatively small group of non-human animals that have been proven to have metacognition. The other species include apes, monkeys, pigeons, and dolphins.
To determine whether or not they have metacognition, scientists put rats through a test in which they were given the choice to answer a question or opt out. If a rat answered the question correctly, they would receive a large food prize. If they answered incorrectly, they received nothing. Choosing to opt out and not answer the question at all yielded a small food prize. The rats did not opt out of the easier questions and typically got them right, winning the larger prize. When the questions were more difficult, rats were more likely to opt out and receive a small prize rather than risk failure. To prove that the rats were opting out because they knew they did not know the answers, scientists put the rats through the same test again but removed the option to skip questions. When the rats were forced to answer the difficult questions, they did poorly. In other words, the scientists proved that rats choose to make logical decisions based on the knowledge they do or do not have.
Rats Remember Everything
In addition to metacognition, rats have outstanding memories. They use episodic memory which is a capability found across mammal and bird species. Episodic memory is the ability to recall personal experiences with their associated contexts. When you think about a specific memory, you think about the event that occurred as well as the location it occurred in, how long ago it happened, what feelings were involved, etcetera. Rats have strong episodic memory, and can remember more than 30 events. Because of this, rats will never forget a navigation route once they’ve learned it, which means they’ll always remember how to find your pantry.
Rats Can Feel Regret
In a study from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, researchers found that rats can regret the choices they make. The rats in the study were given two options which would yield different results. The study showed that, after making a choice and receiving an undesirable result, rats think about and physically express interest in the option they did not choose. This means that if a rat makes a decision that it regrets, it will remember the outcome (thanks to its episodic memory) and avoid making the same decision in the future.
So, why does it matter if we know how rats think? Besides aiding in research about Alzheimer’s and amnesia, the knowledge is invaluable to pest control experts. It gives us a unique perspective when eradicating rat populations; to get rid of rats, you need to think like a rat. Knowing what rats think about allows us to use their habits and preferences against them to drive them out.
What Do Rats Think About?
First and foremost, rats are concerned with survival. In order to survive, they need to constantly be thinking about certain things.
- Rats think about food. They think about where to find it using their sense of smell and memories of where they’ve found food before. Their whiskers and fur allow them to easily feel around for the best route to reach a food source. Once they find a route, they memorize it using episodic and muscle memory. Rats also think about how their food tastes to decide whether or not it is toxic. Since rats live in groups, they also need to think about how much food they have and how they can get more.
- Rats think about shelter. They know they need to find a warm, dry spot as well as materials to build a nest. When considering a nesting spot, rats think about what they hear and smell in order to detect possible nearby threats, and they recall if they have sensed threats in that area before. They also think about what they feel physically. If a potential site is too drafty or damp, for example, it may not be the best nesting spot.
- Rats think about predators. They are relatively small animals, so they are always aware of the potential dangers lurking around them. If they can, they will avoid areas where they remember seeing, smelling, or hearing predators. Even in places they’ve never been, rats try to stay where there are plenty of small hiding spots that predators cannot reach. When they can, they avoid open areas where they are exposed to predators.
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