It's easier to cope when you're a lone rat

Lone lab rats made to feel helpless learned to avoid situations creating such feelings, a new study shows.

Rat 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rat 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Two heads are better than one - but not if you're feeling vulnerable and defenseless. In a new University of Haifa study, lone lab rats that were made to feel helpless learned to avoid uncontrollable situations that create such feelings better than rats that were exposed to uncontrollable conditions in pairs. The results were counterintuitive, as the researchers were certain rats would cope better with feelings of helplessness if they were part of a pair, rather than alone. The way laboratory rats react to uncontrollable situations - in which their behaviors have no influence on subsequent events - has been researched in the past. Results show that rats exposed to small electric shocks that they can't escape have a more difficult time learning how to avoid them in the future than rats never exposed to situations of helplessness - a phenomenon known as "learned helplessness." Researchers choose to experiment with rats because they are known as social animals whose brains work in a way similar to human brains. However, most of the research done until now was done on rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions when they are alone. In his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Qutaiba Agbaria (working under the supervision of Dr. Richard Shuster) examined the differences in learned helplessness among rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions alone and in pairs. The researcher began with the hypothesis that rats would learn to be more adaptable in social situations (being one of a couple). However, the research results revealed a very different picture. Rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions in pairs coped more poorly when they were no longer in uncontrollable situations than rats that were exposed to these situations alone. The next phase of the research examined the influence of a rat that had never been exposed to an uncontrollable situation on a rat that had. These pairs of rats showed greater adaptability than pairs in which both rats had been exposed to helplessness as individuals or in pairs. In addition, the researchers did not find outstanding differences between the learning ability of these pairs of rats - where one had been exposed to uncontrollable conditions and the other had not - and pairs that were never exposed to uncontrollable conditions, which means that the effects of "learned helplessness" were effectively erased. "Now that we have seen that [learned helplessness can be unlearned,]" said Agbaria, "we should continue to examine whether this change is a result of exposure to a rat that was not exposed to helplessness or rather that the social behavior between the two animals has another meaning."