The oft-maligned rat, a rodent known for its role in the black plague, is actually an intelligent animal that helped researchers understand how people learn. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, psychologist Edward C. Tolman conducted experiments with rats in mazes, which revealed that rats can successfully learn how to navigate a maze, regardless of whether or not their food reward was at the end of the maze. This meant that the rats learned a cognitive or spatial map of the maze so they could arrive at the end point easily and repeatedly.
Why Studying Rats Was Important
In going through the maze, the rats learned which corner was blocked and which corner would lead to the reward. This spatial map follows the same principle that people use in everyday life, whether learning math or a language, doing a craft, learning a sport or getting to school or work. If a friend drives you to work along the same path every day, your brain is learning that path, even if you aren't actively paying attention. This is called latent learning. Latent learning enabled the rat to form the spatial map of the maze in its brain so it wouldn’t need to figure out the right path each time it entered the maze. If you need to drive yourself to work along the same path your friend took, chances are you’d be able to do it easily, because your brain developed a spatial map of the route while you were a passenger.
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