In many war movies that were released fifty to eighty years ago, an infantry lieutenant would challenge his platoon with the question, “Are we mice or are we men?” The platoon soldiers would shout back, “We are men! We are men!” The platoon would then charge into battle, suffering horrific casualties before ultimately winning a great victory. I do remember one spoof of such movies where the soldiers shouted, “We are mice! We are mice!” and then beat a hasty retreat.
Rodents share a lot more with humans than we realize, according to a research paper recently published in Science.1 The new research affirms Bible passages written more than three thousand years ago that teach that God designed certain bird and mammal species to form relationships with human beings and to serve and please us—each species in its own unique way.
Four neuroscientists at Humboldt University in Berlin headed by Annika Reinhold first noted that mammals can be trained to perform complex behaviors, tasks, and games by motivating the mammals with food treats. They developed a set of experiments to determine if mammals can be trained in an environment where the rewards are not food treats but instead social interactions with humans.
Hide-and-Seek Game Behavior
A characteristic of animal play behavior is that play occurs freely (there is no compulsion for the animals to play) and it provides no material profit. The predominant benefit to the animals is social interaction.
Reinhold’s team sought to establish if rats would play with humans and if the level of play would be more complex than if rats played with one another without human intervention. In their experiments, the team also desired to discover if the rats would play with humans when the only reward for playing would be additional social interaction with the humans. Finally, they wanted to find out if certain play activities were correlated with prefrontal cortex activity.
Reinhold and her colleagues set up the role-play game hide-and-seek with ten adolescent male rats. They tested whether the rats could play a two-player rat-and-human game.
In the “seek” part of the game the human would place a rat in a box and close the lid. Closing the lid of the start box signaled that the rat was the seeker. The human then hid in one of several locations and remotely opened the box. The rat then searched for the human. A close approach (less than 40 centimeters) to the human with a clear line of sight was scored as a “find.” After the rat found the human, the human would reward the rat with playful interaction before returning the rat to the box. Readers can watch a video clip of the seek part of the game here:
In the “hide” part of the game the human left the start box open and crouched motionlessly next to it. This circumstance cued the rat to hide. The human would wait 90 seconds and search for the rat. Upon finding the rat the human would reward the rat with playful interaction. Readers can watch a video clip of the hide part of the game here:
all ten rats learned the seek part of the game in less than two weeks. nine of the rats in the same time period learned to hide and switch roles. reinhold’s team observed that the rats kept track of past hiding locations and, hence, became more proficient with practice. the rats also quickly developed a preference for opaque and cardboard boxes over transparent ones.
surprisingly, most of the rats in the hide part of the game showed re-hide and runaway behaviors. evidently, the rats preferred prolonging the game over getting a quick social reward. readers can watch a video clip of the re-hide and runaway part of the game here:
The rats would vocalize when they found the human but remained silent when the human found them. This vocalization was not shaped by human conditioning since the rat vocalizations were inaudible to the humans.
The rats were strategic. “Seeking strategies included systematic searches, use of visual cues, and targeting of past hiding locations. Hiding strategies included preferences for opaque enclosures, being silent when hiding, and changing hiding locations.”2
In testing neural correlations Reinhold’s team did tetrode (electrophysiological) recordings of single neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with encoding social proximity. The recordings revealed “neuronal activity specific to phases and events of hide-and-seek.”3
These hide-and-seek experiments showed that rats are capable of decision-making, navigation, and role-playing. The tests also demonstrated that rats are highly motivated to socially engage humans and, when doing so, manifest intellectual and relational capabilities beyond what occurs in the wild where they have no contact with humans.
The researchers did not discuss philosophical inferences of their experiments beyond suggesting that the behaviors they observed may have evolutionary implications. Their results, however, do affirm several principles found in Genesis 1, Exodus 21, and the book of Job 38–42.
The first biblical principle is that God created three different broad categories of life:
- life-forms that are purely physical;
- life-forms that are physical and soulish, meaning that they are endowed with mind, will, and emotions and the capability to form relationships with and to serve and please human beings;
- human beings who are physical, soulish, and spiritual and endowed with the capability of forming relationships with and serving and pleasing God.
A second biblical principle is that the intellectual and relational capabilities of individuals within the second and third categories of life are much enhanced when those individuals are strongly bonded to a higher being.
Thirdly, individuals within the second and third categories of life are happiest when they are strongly bonded to a higher being.
This hierarchy of relational bonds and fulfillment displays the activity of a Creator—One who enjoys not only creating, but also seeing his creatures enjoy each other.