A study led by neuroscientist Kishore Kuchibhotla from Johns Hopkins University, published in Current Biology, reveals intriguing parallels between the strategic thinking of mice and that of children. This research, aimed at delving deeper into animal cognition, holds promise for uncovering the neural mechanisms underpinning strategic decision-making. Kuchibhotla, who has extensively researched learning processes in both humans and animals, particularly mice, sought to understand why these rodents often underperform in tests despite possessing the knowledge to succeed. Through a cleverly designed experiment, akin to playing the role of “mouse psychologist,” Kuchibhotla and his team made a breakthrough discovery.

“It appears that much of the performance gap stems from the animals’ inclination towards exploration: their actions reflect a level of intelligence,” noted Kuchibhotla. He elaborated, “While it’s challenging to assert that animals formulate hypotheses, our viewpoint posits that they, like humans, engage in hypothesis formation and testing through sophisticated cognitive processes.” Previous findings from Kuchibhotla’s lab had hinted at animals possessing more knowledge than they exhibit in standard tests. Consequently, the researchers entertained two hypotheses: either stress-induced errors or a deliberate strategy involving exploration and knowledge testing. To elucidate this, Kuchibhotla, alongside graduate student Ziyi Zhu in neuroscience, devised a novel experiment. Mice were trained to associate specific sounds with left or right wheel-turning actions, followed by rewards for correct responses.

Upon analyzing the mice’s behavior, the researchers observed a fascinating pattern. When presented with consecutive trials of the same sound, the mice initially opted for one direction, then purposefully switched to the opposite, seemingly erring but with a clear strategic intent. “Our findings suggest that during exploration, mice employ a simple yet effective strategy: they initially explore one direction to grasp the situation before switching to another,” explained Kuchibhotla. “Mice exhibit a level of strategic thinking that surpasses conventional expectations,” he concluded.

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