Scientists at the University of Richmond Virginia recently revealed that they have successfully taught a rat to drive a car. (This came as no surprise to me since my ex-boyfriend drove a car when he would come to pick me up.) The rodent experiment comes about 7 years after New Zealand researchers trained a dog to drive a car. Of course, it was a much larger vehicle than the one the rat drives.
Interestingly, I could find no studies involving cats driving cars. If you have ever been in a car with a cat, you probably understand the wisdom in that decision. Monkeys are the most obvious choice for car driving experiments, in my humble opinion. But they have not had the privilege of getting behind the wheel. However, some researchers say monkeys can manipulate wheelchairs with electrodes implanted into their brains.
Why does a rat need to drive a car?
The videos are cute to watch. The little rats in their tiny, cage-like vehicles roll along, bumping into the glass walls and righting themselves to travel on their way. They were focused and determined, and the scientists cheered them on with bits of cereal and cheese.
Watching Rover, looking cool with his paw draped over the steering wheel, made me a little nervous. If straps had not held him to the seat, I could imagine him leaping from the car to chase cats, squirrels, or other driving dogs, leaving the streets in pandemonium. His attention was on the trainer, who jogged alongside the car shouting commands that did not sound unlike me in the car with my husband:
“TURN! TURN! STOPSTOPSTOP!”
You may be wondering why researchers would spend time and money training an animal with no thumbs and no sense of reason to do a job that will likely be completely automated by the next generation. Apparently the dog trainers simply wanted to demonstrate to anyone who is considering adopting a shelter dog that such animals are intelligent and trainable. For the rat researchers, however, the purpose was more serious.
Taking a relaxing drive
If you commute to work, you probably long ago gave up on the idea that driving is a way to relieve stress. In fact, for years, studies have linked driving with tension, high blood pressure, anxiety, and a lower enjoyment of life. Rates of road rage are up, and more drivers look for ways to distract themselves from dealing with the pressure of driving.
Not so for rats, apparently. In their clean, quiet crates, the driving rats demonstrated significantly higher levels of stress-fighting hormones and much lower levels of stress-inducing hormones. Using this information, scientists hope to discover similar activities that will have the same effect on humans. In this way, those who suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or depression may have non-drug alternatives for relieving their symptoms.
As noble as this experiment seems, it makes me wonder why scientists didn’t skip right to those other activities since driving is seldom relaxing for humans. And if doing relaxing activities can really relieve the symptoms of depression and schizophrenia, wouldn’t we all be lying on beaches, doing yoga or scrapbooking? On the other hand, I would probably be a much better, more relaxed driver if I had a personal coach sitting next to me telling me I was doing a great job and dropping bites of cheese into my mouth.