MadSci Network: NeuroScience

Re: mazes

Area: NeuroScience
Posted By: Tim Susman, Staff Zoology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN
Date: Fri Oct 11 16:33:28 1996
Message ID: 841280781.Ns

What you are trying to examine is animal learning. This is a very rich field, and learning a maze is a good classical introduction to it. You can probably find references for your project in any psychology textbook under "Animal learning" -- mine is "Psychology" by Dr. Henry Gleitman. What you should determine for this project, first of all, is what question you are trying to answer. Are you trying to see how long it will take your hamster to learn the maze? How complicated of a maze he can successfully learn? Whether he learns better or worse under certain conditions (and choose a specific set of conditions -- daytime vs. nighttime, hungry vs. well-fed, etc.)? These are just examples -- any question that focuses on a particular part of the learning experience is fine. I can make a few suggestions about the design of the experiment, but you'll have to design the experiment around the question. As far as the maze: it doesn't necessarily have to be a real "maze." If your hamster has a Habitrail, for instance, you can make a maze simply by setting up a series of branches. Learning the maze is simply a matter of learning what choice to make at each branch. You will therefore probably want to teach him one branch at a time (though maybe you'll want to see if he can learn two at once, and if that takes longer). Scientists in the laboratory often use electric shocks to tell the animal that it has made an incorrect choice, and a reward of food for a correct choice. I would recommend NOT using electric shocks. The food should be sufficient. Another general recommendation I can make for you is to make sure that your experiment proves (as best you can) that your hamster learned the maze. The best way to do this is to repeat each trial several times, and try it under different conditions. Ideally, if you have two hamsters, you should use the second as a control; that is, every time you test the first one to see how much it's learned, test the second one at the same time, but don't "train" the second one at all. Then, if your first hamster does much better than the second one, you can claim that your training was successful. Above all, keep it simple. You can do some very interesting experiments with a simple question and a simple experiment. Simple projects are easier to design, easier to complete, and easier to explain to people. Good luck with your project!

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