Take a bunch of peculiar individuals, put them all together in one setting; film their every move, every second of the day. Sound familiar? Dr. Tali Kimchi is explicit about the resemblance of her experiments to a well-known reality TV show. The difference, of course, is that Kimchi’s subjects are mice. She places large groups of animals in a common pen in her lab, which is fitted out with video cameras, infrared lighting for nighttime filming and electronics to continuously record information from the ID chips implanted in each mouse. And while no one can deny that our enjoyment at seeing people voted out reveals something about human nature, Kimchi’s mice are likely tell us much more about the way that our societies form and how different personality types find their places in human social structures.
Kimchi’s research takes place in that huge, messy gray area in which nature, nurture and culture overlap; where animals turn out to have unique personalities and human genes turn out to be more correlated with our behavior than we would like to believe. It’s also an area where mice can be bred to exhibit personality traits. Some of the mice used in the research team’s experiments were social animals; others had been bred to exhibit autistic-like activity – engaging in minimal social interaction and compulsive behavior patterns.
In contrast to the artifice of Big Brother-type situations, Kimchi and her team set out to create a semi-natural, yet controlled setting for observing mouse society. It turns out that mouse social structures are almost depressingly similar to human ones. Within 24 hours of coming together in one location, a social hierarchy begins to emerge. One alpha male mouse takes on the role of the house’s top banana (he has control over the movement of others, as well as first mating privileges). Sub-dominant male mice compete with the alpha male, waiting for a sign of weakness so they can capture the position of the alpha male; thus castes form within the groups. The mice have an intimate understanding of this structure: They know which of their fellow mice they can hang with, which to avoid and which they can pick on with impunity. Of course, that similarity is what makes these experiments compelling, on the one hand, and a useful model for further experimentation, on the other. Questions that still remain open: What are the factors that determine who will be the dominant and who will be the subordinate animal? How much of this nature (the genes, morphology, physiology we born with); how much is nurture (environmental factors affecting how we behave); and how much is just random occurrence?
But there is also a curious twist to the Big Brother: Mice! story. When just the autistic-type male mice were placed in the house, their society appeared to be relatively libertarian: Leaders did not tend to emerge or, if one did manage to set himself up at the top, he was quickly overthrown.
Mouse society, it seems, is both complex enough and human-like enough to provide real insight into how social structures and behaviors emerge from the collective drive to live and function in large, cooperative units. Even more interesting might be the suggestion that this type of set-up could be used to conduct experiments on neuropsychological disorders that have social aspects, for example, autism or schizophrenia.