Rat Neuroscience and Chicago Politics

Professor Peggy Mason is experimenting with rats and thinking about politics [insert punchline here] Mason has shown that rats will overcome their most basic fears to free an imprisoned comrade. Or would it be “com-rat”.

Rats for example, hate light and they hate being in the middle of a room. But a rat will put her primal rodental fears behind her plus learn new, foreign behaviors to open a cage for the sake of a sister rat’s liberty.

You could call rats racist. A rat from a white family will not instinctively go through all those behavioral changes for the sake of a brown one. But it turns out that like governor George Wallace of Alabama rat racists can be redeemed. A rat will come to the rescue of any rat that reminds her of a rat with whom she’s had a positive social experience. When she sees a speckled rat in the trap, somewhere in her little ratty hippocampus he’ll think, “My college roommate was speckled” And will race to its rat rescue.

Maybe exposure-based prosociality is the neurological explanation of why like parks and beaches make life better. Chicago’s master planner Daniel Burnham insisted on abundant public spaces for us. He believed they foster community. If you spend a whole Cubs’ season, with all the trauma that entails, sitting next to a guy from Sri Lanka chances are you will, thereafter cop a better attitude toward all Sri Lankans – depending on how rat-like you are. But on Saturday nights you’re not just cruising bars hitting on everything in sight. You are expanding your dendritic arbor. It ain’t just horny, it’s neuroscience. Decades of positive interracial experiences seem to have rat-ified our national politics all the way to the White House. We’re pretty rat-like about gays and lesbians too. When I was in high school “homosexual” meant “target” now it mostly means “target audience”.

And so it proceeds, as we are positively interact with more varied populations our definitions of “normal” expand beyond imagination. If professor Mason is right who knows? Years from now when discussing political news someone will say, “I smell a rat here” the response may well be, “I sure hope so.”

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