It’s not just us humans who like to play hide-and-seek.
It turns out rats like to play the game too, and they squeal with excitement when they are successful. It turns out that play is essential to the health of many animals. If you think you know why animals play, you better keep reading because the answer is not so simple.
BACK TO THE RATS
How do rats play hide-and-seek? They have to be trained, of course! Who does the training? Scientists do, of course!
Some might ask why scientists are wasting their time on such a silly study. It’s a good question that has a good answer. The scientists are trying to find out why many kinds of animals, from rodents all the way up to mammals, put so much value into playtime. The scientists have found this mystery far more difficult to solve than expected.
In this study, rats were taught to play hide-and-seek with the scientists and were rewarded with a little tickle when they were successful. The rats were tested to see if they really understood the game by providing the rats with good and also “stupid” hiding places. An example of a “stupid” hiding place was a see-through wall or a very low obstacle.
The rats did not disappoint. They became increasingly better at the game and avoided the “stupid” hiding places to increase their chances of a win and get their tickle. Scientists found that it wasn’t even just the tickle the rats were after. When successful, the rats squealed with excitement and sometimes ran back to find a new hiding spot before they received their tickle. Scientists were also surprised to observe constant excited squealing throughout the game, except when it was time for the rats to hide. The rats then became silent to increase their chances of not being found. The rats were having some fun!
You likely already know it’s not just rats that like to play. Certainly, you have seen cats and dogs playing. Almost every other animal around us has been seen playing from time to time. Even some birds have been seen playing catch in the air with falling feathers. But why?
WHY DO WE PLAY?
The common belief is that the animals are preparing for future combat by playing with their siblings. Scientists put this to the test and found absolutely no correlation between playing and successful fighting or defensive strategies later in life.
The next most common belief is that animals play in order to practice their hunting skills. Scientists tested out this belief, and again found no correlation between playing and successful hunting. In addition, animals that do not hunt play too.
Belief after belief was tested and, again and again, scientists found no evidence to support any of the beliefs. However, scientists did find some surprising results. Animals that played were noticeably less stressed and smarter than the same animal counterparts that did not play. Animals were tested in controlled environments and those that played had longer and healthier lives than those that either sat alone or were placed with animals that were sedated just enough so that they would not play.
Animals that played even were found to grow larger brains than their same-species counterparts that did not engage in play. So what causes all of this? Scientists are still not sure. The effect of play on health and happiness are clear and measurable, but what is not clear is what processes take place to make this happen or cause animals to want to play.
Some might not be very interested in whether or not rats want to play. However, it is important to remember that we are animals too — and not all that far removed genetically from our animal friends. Scientists have found the same benefits to play in humans that they have found in animals. It’s still not clear how play changes our bodies in this way, but what is clear is that play is essential. It’s time for extra recess — even for adults!
COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE
An “online exclusive” is an article or story that does not run in the print edition of the Houston Herald. Typically 2 or 3 are posted online every Wednesday morning. It’s another feature designed for users who purchase full web access from the Herald.