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How does mental navigation work in animals?

We all know rats can be taught to navigate mazes and do other tasks for food rewards, but can they teach each other to find food? A new study suggests that rats can, in fact, learn navigation through observation. 

The research, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, looked at how animals form mental maps using lab rats as a research model. Specifically, the scientists wanted to see if rats could learn about a physical space by watching another rat explore it rather than exploring it themselves.       

“Learning by observation is the most common form of learning from school to daily life,” said Dr. Thomas Doublet of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. We wanted to understand whether or not a spatial representation could be acquired remotely. This is important to understand how spatial representations can be generated and stabilized.”

To explore this question, rats were put into a two part cage, with an observer rat inside an internal clear cage, watching a rat explore the outer cage. The observer rat learned the location of food by watching the demonstrator rat in the outer cage.

Rats that had the benefit of watching a friend find the food were tested against naive rats who didn’t watch another find the food. Naive rats were found to be 12 percent successful compared to the 100 percent successful observer rats. This shows that rats can create mental navigation maps with only indirect experience to guide them Doublet explained,                       

“Our study shows that the cognitive representation of a space formed by observation is stable and can be used by the animals to navigate more efficiently through the observed space,” said Dr. Doublet, “This study is a means to better understand how our brain represents the behavior of conspecifics, but also how our internal GPS works.”

The researchers say that the findings represent a step toward understanding how mental navigation works in animals but there’s still more research to be done before it’s fully understood. For one, it is still not known whether rats use the same neurons to create mental maps from observation as from their own experience. 

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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