City rats: Insight from rat spatial behavior into human cognition in urban environments

Osnat Yaski, Juval Portugali, David Eilam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The structure and shape of the urban environment influence our ability to find our way about in the city. Understanding how the physical properties of the environment affect spatial behavior and cognition is therefore a necessity. However, there are inherent difficulties in empirically studying complex and large-scale urban environments. These include the need to isolate the impact of specific urban features and to acquire data on the physical activity of individuals. In the present study, we attempted to overcome the above obstacles and examine the relation between urban environments and spatial cognition by testing the spatial behavior of rats. This idea originated from the resemblance in the operative brain functions and in the mechanisms and strategies employed by humans and other animals when acquiring spatial information and establishing an internal representation, as revealed in past studies. Accordingly, we tested rats in arenas that simulated a grid urban layout (e.g. Manhattan streets) and an irregular urban layout (e.g. Jerusalem streets). We found that in the grid layout, rat movement was more structured and extended over a greater area compared with their restricted movement in the irregular layout. These movement patterns recall those of humans in respective urban environments, illustrating that the structure and shape of the environment affect spatial behavior similarly in humans and rats. Overall, testing rats in environments that simulate facets of urban environments can provide new insights into human spatial cognition in urban environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)655-663
Number of pages9
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2011


FundersFunder number
Israel Science Foundation177/09


    • Cognitive map
    • Exploration
    • Orientation
    • Spatial behavior
    • Spatial representation
    • Urban environment


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