Already famous for swimming through sewers and surviving under subway rails, rats can now claim a more sophisticated talent: thinking about thinking. It’s not epistemology, but a study published today in Current Biology reports the first evidence that rats know the limits of their own knowledge–a capacity long thought to belong only to the animal kingdom’s top brains.
People experience metacognition, or gauging their own knowledge, on a daily basis; anyone who’s ever had a sinking feeling during an exam knows it well. But attempts to detect metacognition in animals have met with little success, in large part because animals can’t tell researchers what they’re thinking. Scientists must instead rely on behavioral clues: Monkeys place lower bets on their answers when given a difficult test, for example, and dolphins waver when asked to distinguish between two similar sounds. Thus far, however, smaller-brained animals, such as pigeons, have shown no signs of metacognition in the lab.
Would rats be any different? A new study suggests rats can think about thinking, making them more self-aware than scientists thought.