Behavioral and neural correlates of hide-and-seek in rats

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Science  13 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1180-1183
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax4705

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Role play between rats and humans

There is controversy regarding how widespread animal play behavior is and what its evolutionary function might be. Reinhold et al. demonstrated that rats can play hide-and-seek with a human. In the “seek” condition, rats learned to look for the hidden humans and kept seeking until they found them. In the “hide” condition, they learned to hide in one of several locations and waited there until being found. In both cases, the rats were rewarded by social interaction with the human. Rats vocalized when seeking and finding and were silent when hiding. Recordings in the medial prefrontal cortex detected neurons that were sensitive to the game structure.

Science, this issue p. 1180


Evolutionary, cognitive, and neural underpinnings of mammalian play are not yet fully elucidated. We played hide-and-seek, an elaborate role-play game, with rats. We did not offer food rewards but engaged in playful interactions after finding or being found. Rats quickly learned the game and learned to alternate between hiding versus seeking roles. They guided seeking by vision and memories of past hiding locations and emitted game event–specific vocalizations. When hiding, rats vocalized infrequently and they preferred opaque over transparent hiding enclosures, a preference not observed during seeking. Neuronal recordings revealed intense prefrontal cortex activity that varied with game events and trial types (“hide” versus “seek”) and might instruct role play. The elaborate cognitive capacities for hide-and-seek in rats suggest that this game might be evolutionarily old.

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