In a battle of wits, humans and rats are way more evenly matched than you'd think. While we obviously have an advantage in overall intelligence, our ability to read situations and make decisions is actually no better than a rat's.
In what has got to be great news for anyone who has ever tried and failed to catch a rat, researchers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York have found that rodents are as good as humans at combining different stimuli to make decisions. What this means, essentially, is that when we're presented with a given situation, we are able to combine all available information - say, what we can see versus what we hear - in a statistically optimal way without biasing one type of information over another.
That may sound simple - indeed, it's the sort of thing you're unlikely to be consciously aware of doing - but this ability to integrate multiple types of sensory information with maximum efficiency isn't something easily observed in other animals. Indeed, this new work by the CSHL research represents the first time we've observed such behavior in a non-human species. This likely means that the underlying neural circuitry for this behavior go back very far in our evolutionary history.
This discovery in rodents should allow us to better understand just how the brain works to combine different stimuli in the optimal configuration, something that is much more difficult to figure out when just working with more complex human brains. This newly found animal model could be particularly useful in determining why people with autism do organize multisensory information in an atypical, non-optimal way, and this new knowledge might ultimately lead to a treatment for this particular issue.
The researchers had both humans and rats perform tasks that required them to integrate lots of different sensory cues. Both species performed best when they were presented with combined multisensory information, and they both assessed the information in what the researchers found to be the statistically optimal way. It would seem that, at least as long as we're talking about responding to the surrounding environment, humans and rats really are evenly matched. Clearly, we underestimate a rat's intelligence at our own peril...although honestly, "The Rats of CSHL" doesn't have quite the right ring to it.
Via the Churchland Lab. Top image from The Secret of NIMH.