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Of Rats and Men: Mammals at Play

Have you ever thought about what rats have in common with comedy club audiences? No? I hadn’t either until I met neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and some of his students.

Professor Panksepp studies the origin of emotions by examining the nervous systems of rats at play, and that got me thinking about the legendary comedian Henny Youngman. Nobody could deliver a one-liner like Youngman, the great comedian and screechy violinist. He’d roll the build-up and the punch line into one small, effective package. “What’s the latest dope on Wall Street?” he’d ask. Then, “My son!” Youngman would hit audiences with so many one-liners like this, “machine gun style,” that they wouldn’t quite be able to stop laughing at the last joke before the next one would pile on top. His listeners’ cheeks would ache, and he’d bow a few sour notes on the violin to give them a break. It was hard for Youngman to avoid saying something funny. His most famous joke began not as a joke at all. Once before going on stage he was handing off his wife Sadie (on whom he doted) to a theater usher. “Take my wife,” Youngman said distractedly, and when he remembered to say “please” the man in the uniform busted up. A hard working comedian takes his material where he can find it and as it comes, and Youngman repeated that line ten thousand times. I once saw Youngman at the Buffalo Airport waiting for a plane delayed by a lake-effect squall. I couldn’t believe my good luck. And even though the long wait had put the comedian (like the rest of the travelers) in a bad mood—Youngman was arguing with his manager—I butted in anyway. I mean, when would I get another chance to trade lines with Henny Youngman? “Hey Mr. Youngman,” I hollered, “A bum walked up to me, said he hadn’t eaten a square meal in a week.” Youngman swiveled his eyes up and out of the corner of his mouth growled “so I gave him a bouillon cube.” A dozen nearby guffawed at the brush off. And the old vaudevillian gave me a nod and a conspiratorial half-smile—thanks for the set-up, kiddo.

And here’s where my meeting Panksepp comes in. Thinking a joke through like this isn’t the only way to get a laugh out of a mammal. Laughing is almost original equipment for mammals. How do we know? Here’s a bigger surprise: we can actually listen to the descendents or our ancient relatives laughing.

At Bowling Green University in the mid 1990’s, professor Panksepp and his enterprising psychology graduate student, Jeff Burgdorf, watched lab rats at play. For fun the scientists also often tickled their subjects as they handled them. Then they listened in—on an ultrasonic bat detector. They needed it to bring the rats’ sounds down to human range. The device showed that rats chirp at various pitches, depending on their activity. They chirp at a particular frequency when they’re tickled, and they chirp at the very same frequency when they wrestle.

Rats that wrestle don’t have as many moves as Hulk Hogan. Rodent wrestling is simple; they mostly go for the nape of the neck and pin the opponent. And they work up a pretty good hip slam, too. Sometimes they stand atop the vanquished, teetering gleefully. But these plain, enjoyable, endless games teach us humans basic lessons about the emotional and physical benefits of give-and-take. Professor Panksepp’s students and colleagues noticed how rats raised in isolation and without play tend to overreact nervously to other rats’ normal movements. Surprises startle them rather than please them. Successful play eludes them. Once they become adults, play-deprived rats will fail at mating, too. When it comes to rough-and-tumble or slap-and-tickle, they just don’t get the joke. The American Journal of Play's special issue on the science of play includes both an interview with professor Panksepp and a coauthored article on just this subject.

Rats won’t understand why Youngman’s jokes about his wife’s cooking are funny. But we can still learn something about fun from these ancient relatives of ours. Rats will become edgy, clumsy, socially isolated and less creative if deprived of play. We big-brained, stressed out, modern workaholics can take a cue. Over recent decades, Americans have seen their leisure time shrink; “teaching to the test” has crowded out recess at school; constant texting and tweeting have left us distracted. Old or young, human or rodent, when we get low on play we’re like those dispirited airline travelers waiting for the squall to pass. We’re hungry for a laugh.