July 11, 2013
Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field – but only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. Our wonderful Jenny Jopson describes the idea, the science and the inspiration behind our bravest experiment yet…
Are you smarter than a rat? This was the question at the heart of Lab Rats, one of our most imaginative and challenging undertakings yet. Following the triumph of the Decontamination Chamber in 2011, we headed back to Somerset in June 2013 to once again mess with the heads of unsuspecting festival goers in Shangri La, the anarchic after-hours corner of Glastonbury Festival.
Wedged up against the vast Hell stage – all black wooden spikes, jets of fire and throbbing drum’n’bass – was our experimental chamber, an immersive theatrical experience designed in collaboration with the very talented Ridley Buchanan Architects and constructed by champions of timber and power tools, designer Ben Kearns and carpenter Alister Mackie.
As twilight fell on the first night of the festival and a gentle rain began to fall (which thankfully did not last all weekend) we fired up our neon sign, opened the doors and beckoned in our first experimental specimens…
Once inside they were greeted by Zucker, Wistar, Lewis and Lister (played by our superstar troupe of actors wearing latex heads made by the incredible Georgi Shire), and categorised according to their sex, variety and level of intoxication, before being put through their cognitive paces via a battery of sensory tests devised by rockstar neuroscientist Dr Edward Bracey.
They were then challenged to navigate the radial arm maze – a giant 8 pointed star based on mazes used in scientific research today – before finally being brought back into the experimental chamber to have their performance graded and the verdict delivered: smarter or dumber than a rat.
The underlying concept was simple: we wanted to turn the tables on the audience to comic and surreal effect, creating a Kafke-esque, alternate reality in which the rats are the experimenters, and the audience the test subjects. In doing so we hoped to encourage festival goers to explore their relationship with animals and feelings about the use of animals in research, and gain an appreciation of how rats and other animal models have contributed to scientific understanding.
While wishing to remain fairly neutral in our position, we also wanted to tackle some of the misconceptions around laboratory animals. Organisations like Peta are energetic in their demonisation of scientists who use animals in their research (witness the recent online game Cage Fight) and, keen as ever for authenticity, we wanted to gain some first-hand experience to inform the development of the project and avoid lapsing into cliché. Valuable insights came via discussions with our funders the Wellcome Trust, and the organisations Understanding Animal Research and the NC3Rs, who helped us build a picture of the reality of animals in research. UAR even arranged a lab visit for our actors, an amazing experience that was invaluable in developing the characters of the rats and their interactions with the human test subjects. We visited an animal facility owned by Kings College London where rats, mice and zebra fish are bred for use in research into Parkinson’s and other cognitive disorders. The wonderful Joan Castle showed us around and introduced us to Danny the rat (a particularly friendly chap who was a big hit with our actor Zach). Many aspects of the eventual Glastonbury experience – including the rats’ names, taken from actual strains of rats used in research, and their predilection for hugs and tickling – stemmed from what we learned on this visit.
We were also impressed with the regard for animal welfare that we encountered, and the controls – Home Office guidelines, EU directives – in place to protect the animals.
So why rats? Well, we owe a lot to these little creatures – they are the original lab animal, having been the first species to have been bred specifically for scientific use back in the 1800s, and today they are the second most commonly used mammal after the mouse. Over the last century, the rat’s image has been transformed from plague carrier to indispensable tool in experimental medicine and drug development. They have contributed hugely to our understanding of cognition, memory and navigation. As Hugo Spiers, cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, told us “a lot of what we know about how brain cells use memory – maybe around 80% – comes from studies of rats in mazes”. And the idea of giant rats scurrying around the dark alleyways of Shangri La was just too good to resist.
We’ve certainly developed a respect and admiration for rats through the project – they are cognitively superior to us in many ways, not least their olfactory sensitivity, whisker touch acuity and hearing. We humans are so used to being the dominant species and resting assured in our position at the top of the evolutionary tree – so where better than a music festival, outside of the constraints of normality and routine, to turn our smugly complacent anthropocentric world even further upside down?
Through inviting our audience to enter a kind of rat heaven in the midst of Shangri La hell, we hope we have confounded the expectations of festival-goers and challenged their preconceptions of animal research – whilst obviously also showing them a damn good time.
This project was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field. But only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. As it turns out, they have much to say on the matter of human supposed superiority…
After years of careful selective breeding and meticulous gene splicing, the Guerilla Science lab technicians have created a race of giant, sentient super rats. Bred from four strains of rat commonly used in laboratories across the world – Wistar, Lewis, Lister and Zucker – they stand a little taller than the average person and look uncannily like a human wearing a convincing prosthetic rat head. On achieving self-awareness, our rats were intrigued by their human creators and wanted to determine the differences between our species. As their newly evolved cognitive powers are similar to ours, they suspected that the differences lay largely in the fine-tuning of our senses. These they set out to test, in order to decide our fate, at Glastonbury Festival. They established a small laboratory in Shangri-La, nestled next to the main stage of hell. What follows is their somewhat damning report on humanity.
Lewis, Lister, Wistar and Zucker (2013). Investigative Journal of Human Incompetence. Vol (101). Page 666-610.
Despite their deep-seated feelings of superiority, human beings are thought to be inferior to our new species in many ways, especially with respect to their sensory systems. For example, humans are known to have far fewer olfactory receptors (the proteins in the nose that allow odours to be detected) than rats and a proportionally miniscule part of there are brains devoted to olfactory processing. Thus they are thought to have a severely impaired sense of smell. While rats are red-green colourblind and have blurred vision, we can see further into the ultraviolet spectrum than humans.
Furthermore, our whiskers more than make up for our inability to focus on nearby objects; they allow us to discriminate exquisitely fine detail, and are far more sensitive than a human fingertip. The human auditory range is also far narrower than rats – they can hear sound frequencies that range from 20 – 20,000Hz compared to our range of 200 – 90,000Hz.
Thus, humans must perceive the world in a drab, severely limited and strange way that we may never fully comprehend. We thus set out to investigate the limits of sensory perception of these poor creatures that created us.
Materials and Methods
Subjects were easy to find as vast numbers of the pleasure-seeking zombie denizens of Shangri La’s hell crushed their way into our facility, begging and wailing to be experimented on. Humans were housed in groups of five or six in standard laboratory cages, slightly larger than those used for normal laboratory rats. Subjects were sniffed, sexed and weighed, and their self-declared levels of intoxication were recorded.
To push them to the limits of their senses, we used tasks normally employed by human neuroscientists to investigate the neural processes that underlie sensory perception in rodents. Behavioural tasks had to be specially adapted and simplified as we found that prior to testing, humans would inexplicably expose themselves voluntarily to destructive amplitudes of rhythmic noise, severe narcotic intoxication and crippling levels of sleep deprivation (data not shown).
Subjects were first asked to verbally identify commonly available odours that they were expected to be familiar with, such as lemon or almond.
Next, to compare the sensitivity of their creepy fur-free skin to our highly tuned whiskers, their hideous hides were tested at various places with a simple two point discrimination task. They were then probed with a task normally used to determine how differently rats perceive various odours. Briefly, they were presented with a sample stimulus comprising an odour or fabric texture and then had to make their way through a maze with multiple corridors, choosing the correct exit passage by matching the sample stimulus to the odours and textures planted at each entrance.
These and many other such behavioural tasks have allowed neuroscientists to probe the limits of rodent sensory abilities showing, for example, that both detection thresholds and the perception of differences in concentration for some odours are several fold better in rats than in humans. They have also been used to identify how quickly certain brain areas process information. Once the limits of sensory systems are known, scientists can manipulate different neurons in the brain in a range of ingenious ways, such as activating them with light pulses, to determine how changing the activity of certain neurons alters sensory perception. This allows scientists to understand how the firing of different neurons contributes to the circuits that make up the brain.
At certain points throughout testing, subjects were also asked to exercise, sleep or were subjected to sensory enrichment, all of which are thought to enhance memory and sensory acuity in both humans and rodents.
Despite probing them with very simple tasks, and attempting to improve their sensory abilities with enrichment and exercise, human subjects were often unable to identify or locate even simple odours. While they fared slightly better in tests of tactile stimuli (touch), they were still greatly enfeebled compared to rodents performing whisker sensitivity tests. Those subjects that reported high intake of various hedonistic substances typically performed worse still on all tests.
Many humans arrogantly protest that they deserve pride of place at the top of the food chain.
However, most of our subjects were embarrassed by how poorly they performed on tasks that rats would find trivial. Combined with their destructive tendencies, predilection for mind-altering substances and pathological imbalance with their natural environment, these authors suggest that humans immediately relinquish their grubby grasp on the planet to rats. In their new capacity as underlings, humans may yet prove useful to us despite their impoverished sensory abilities; their brains and general physiological make-up are remarkably similar to our own in many ways, making them ideal test subjects for understanding more about ourselves in both health and disease.
Blog post by Lewis et al (in actual fact the spectacular Dr Edward Bracey, if you want to spoil the satire). More on the experience of the actors in an erudite record by actor Lloyd Ryan-Thomas here, and on the science by the marvellous russet-haired Jenny Jopson, who has worked tirelessly to make this happen, here. All pics of Lab Rats and of the construction of the maze can be seen on our Flickr site.
This project was generously sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.
July 10, 2013
Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field – but only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. Lloyd Ryan-Thomas – one of half a dozen immaculate actors fit for the task – tells us what it was like to stage our bravest experiment yet…
Blog post by the marvellous freckle-faced Lloyd Ryan-Thomas, who like all our actors, was an indefatigable soldier throughout. Aces high.
All pics of Lab Rats and of the construction of the maze can be seen on our Flickr site. For more on the idea, see the elucidation by our marvellous Russet Jenny Jopson here, and our ultimate rock star neuroscientist Edward Bracey here.
This project was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust.
July 8, 2013
In 2011 we took Glastonbury by storm, invading Shangri La – the official “naughty corner” of Britain’s biggest festival – with microbiologists, psychiatrists, and a gigantic white Decontamination Chamber.
What can we say? We couldn’t help but come back for more. This year’s theme: Dante’s Inferno, and the entire field split into heaven and hell.
Where did they decide to site us? This is what the conversation in the production office must have sounded like:
“Hey Guerilla Science are coming back to Shangri La, where should we put them? In Heaven next to the gardens where it’s all white and peaceful and the toilets are cleaned every half hour?”
“Nah. What about right next to the Hell Stage? Next to a guy on a towering throne sticking a dildo wand into the crowd? You know, where all the pyrotechnics, dubstep and drag queen wax parlours are.”
Result: Lab Rats, right next to the Hell Stage.
How many science outreach organisations have the gumption to build a giant maze right next to the epicentre of hell?