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What an Animal Model Can Teach Us About the Human Body’s “Internal GPS”

Graphic of blue maze and pink human figure at entrance

If you’ve ever been lost in an airport, there’s a good chance you’ve relied on your fellow travelers to navigate the chaotic space. You might follow a large group to the security checkpoint, observing the natural flow of the crowd as you get your bearings. We humans are observant creatures, and learning by observation is an important technique that we use to orient our “internal GPS” and learn to better understand the world around us. Now, a new study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience sheds light on the “internal GPS” of an animal model, suggesting that rats can learn to navigate spaces just by observation.

Graphic of blue maze and pink human figure at entrance

How Animals Form Cognitive Maps

Just as road trippers might use a physical map to navigate a confusing highway system, animals and humans navigate spaces with the help of “cognitive maps,” described by Science Direct as an “internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels.” These “maps” are made of functional cells including grid cells, border cells, and head direction cells, all of which help humans and animals orient themselves in certain spaces. While the processes behind these cognitive maps are still unclear, recent research suggests that observational mapping – constructing a cognitive map after observing someone else – is surprisingly effective. To test this, researchers used rats, which are known for their superior navigational abilities. The researchers wanted to know: Could rats learn to navigate spaces by observing other rats?

Can an Animal Model Learn by Observation?

Study author Dr. Thomas Doublet explained the interest in observation-based orientation in rats. “Learning by observation is the most common form of learning from school to daily life,” Doublet told Frontiers Science News. “We wanted to understand whether or not a spatial representation could be acquired remotely. This is important to understand how spatial representations can be generated and stabilized.” In other words, the study could ideally help shed light on the part of the brain that contributes to spatial orientation in humans.

First, the researchers led the rats through an observational spatial task that involved a two-part cage. The researchers placed an “observer rat” in the inner cage and a “demonstrator rat” in the outer cage. The researchers then ensured that the observer rats could watch as the demonstrator rats encountered a food reward. After the observational training, the observer rats were allowed to explore the outer cage and find the reward. The observer rats had a 100 percent success rate compared to a 12 percent success rate in “naive rats,” the latter of which did not undergo observational training. This result suggests that rats can learn about a physical space by simply observing another rat.

Research Implications for the “Internal GPS”

While the study does not explain exactly how the observational representation is formed, it could prove interesting for future research. “Our study shows that the cognitive representation of a space formed by observation is stable and can be used by the animals to navigate more efficiently through the observed space,” noted Doublet. “This study is a means to better understand how our brain represents the behavior of conspecifics, but also how our internal GPS works.”


Moving forward, the research team may explore whether animals use the same neurons to represent observed and self-experienced spaces. With that, the researchers may be able to gain a greater understanding of the implications for the human brain’s “internal GPS.”

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