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‘We’re All Just Rats in Mazes’

Jarid Goodman watches rats negotiate the maze of popular culture.

There’s something satisfying about watching a rat solve a maze. As an experimental psychologist who’s watched many rats solve many mazes over the years, I can tell you it never ceases to bring me joy.

Why is that? Surely part of me is happy for the rat, who was once hungry and has now slaked its appetite. The experience is also visually appealing. After many trials, once the rat learns the path by heart, it flies through the maze like a capsule through a pneumatic tube. But I also feel some sense of achievement. This leads me to think I’m living vicariously through the rat – imagining that its predicament is my own, and that it’s me running through the maze, solving my problems and collecting my rewards.

My appreciation for rats solving mazes has led me down an unexpected path, into philosophy. I’ve become preoccupied with the meaning of the rat in the maze – what it means to me, and what it means to others. While travelling this maze of my own, I’ve come to realize how strangely omnipresent the rat maze is in Western culture, as an important literary device in books, films, and television shows. It even crops up in our conversations from time to time. The ‘rat maze’ carries so much meaning: it’s not just about rats finding food, it’s about human nature. We’re all rats looking for ‘food’ (whatever will sustain us) in our own, individual mazes, aren’t we? So, join me, if you will, down this winding path through recent Western culture. Discover what it really means to be a rat in a maze. And, learn more about yourself along the way.

The Rat Maze in Popular Culture

Pinky and the Brain
Pinky and the Brain have options
Pinky & The Brain image © WB Kids 1996

Like most folks, I learned about rat mazes at a young age. As a child, I spent my Saturday mornings watching cartoons, and one of my favorites was Pinky and the Brain (1995-98), a show about two genetically altered lab mice. The Brain was a genius with aspirations to ‘take over the world’, and Pinky was a hyperactive simpleton whose primary goal in life was to goof off and have fun. One episode, titled ‘The Maze’, opens on the pair of mice as they stroll through a labyrinth while a scientist in a white lab coat observes their behavior. Sound familiar? Although I don’t expect you to have watched this episode, I do expect that the image of a scientist observing a rodent in a maze is something you’ve seen before. With hundreds of methods used in the behavioral sciences, none seem to be as widely recognized as the rat maze. The image has made a home in our collective consciousness. But how, and, more importantly, why?

As cartoon characters, rodents often think and act like people, and the intricate mazes they navigate symbolize the complexities of work, interpersonal relationships, and government institutions, such as the Internal Revenue Service, which the ‘rat’ looks upon with fear and anxiety. (This is, of course, very different from how people view the IRS; that is, with complete serenity and good humor.)

The first rat maze – modeled after the famed hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace – was created in the 1890s by a group of American psychologists at Clark University. Since then, the image of a laboratory rodent (usually a rat, but sometimes a mouse or hamster) solving a complex maze has trickled into popular culture. Other American TV shows with a rodent in a maze include Tom and Jerry, The Simpsons, Science Fiction Theatre, Daria, Becker, Lost, Family Guy, South Park, American Horror Story, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, to name but a few.

Hollywood films are no stranger to rat mazes either. Here they usually have one of a set of standard meanings. A scene with a rat in a maze can for instance foreshadow a situation that’s difficult to navigate, or get in or out of. In the 1989 cult film Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, the villain, Jack Palance, locks his pet rats in a maze. This symbolizes his scheme to throw the title characters in jail. Or in science fiction, a scientist may use a rat maze to demonstrate the effects of an experimental drug or treatment. The premise of the forgotten 1996 thriller, ironically titled Unforgettable, hinges on the (fictitious) premise that cerebrospinal fluid contains memories. As proof of concept, a scientist places a rat in a maze where the goal is to avoid a cat. As the rat has never been in the maze before, he has no knowledge of how to solve it, and fails to escape. A second rat, however, fares much better because, before going into the maze, the rodent gets an injection of cerebrospinal fluid from an experienced rat that’s been in the maze many times before. The memories in the cerebrospinal fluid allow the second rat to navigate the maze successfully. In his scathing review of the film in The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, “Trying to find my way through this plot, I felt like the first rat”.

Charlie Gordon and His Pet Mouse

A rodent maze was employed in a similar manner in the 1966 sci fi novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film Charly (1968).

Flowers for Algernon
Algernon, an amazing mouse
Algernon cover © Orion Publishing Group 2000

This classic tale follows the trials of a mentally challenged man named Charlie Gordon as he undergoes an experimental operation to increase his intelligence. The procedure is initially tested on a mouse named Algernon. After the operation, Algernon develops the ability to quickly learn new mazes, suggesting a dramatic increase in intelligence. Next, Charlie gets the operation, and his progress is measured through maze competitions with Algernon. As the mouse learns a new maze, Charlie attempts to solve an identical maze with pencil and paper. At first Charlie is no match for the rodent’s keen sense of navigation. But, over time he begins to beat Algernon, proving the operation a success. Over the next few months, we see Charlie’s intelligence skyrocket to genius levels.

Flowers for Algernon is noteworthy for many reasons, not least of which is its remarkable voice. The novel is told from the point-of-view of journal entries written by Charlie both before and after the operation. This perspective allows the reader to track Charlie’s progress as he goes from making numerous spelling and grammatical errors and expressing a shallow view of the world around him to articulating deep thoughts with eloquence and aplomb. But of course, Charlie’s intelligence comes at a price. He quickly surpasses the mental abilities of the people in his life and has no one to talk to about the obscure scholarly matters that interest him. For companionship, he steals Algernon and builds a plastic maze in his apartment for his murine friend to gad about in. However, soon enough, the mouse’s ability to run through the maze declines: a signal for what’s to come of Charlie’s intelligence too.

The Metaphorical Rat in a Maze

We see actual rat mazes used as plot devices in movies, novels, and television shows, sure. What’s more common, however, is the figurative rat in a maze. The phrase ‘like a rat in a maze’ is used to describe a situation where a person is trapped in an impossible dilemma with many twists and turns, or when a character feels like he or she is the subject of an experiment, observed and manipulated by an unseen meddler.

In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist Offred lives in a dystopian future America called Gilead, where the rights of women have been stripped away. In a telling moment Offred laments, “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” Offred is saying the women of Gilead may at times get a false sense of freedom, like a rat that’s been given the opportunity to explore a maze. Of course, neither the women nor the rat are really free, because physical and legal boundaries keep them from going outside the maze.

In their song ‘Patterns’ (1966), Simon and Garfunkel use the phrase in a different, yet equally grim, way:

From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death,
There are patterns I must follow
Just as I must breathe each breath.
Like a rat in a maze
The path before me lies,
And the pattern never alters
Until the rat dies.

Here Simon and Garfunkel are saying that life is like a rat maze, in that we have no control over its pattern; we just follow the path that lies ahead until we die. It’s a depressing view of life, and it doesn’t say much for the rat maze metaphor either. But this is typical of the term’s everyday usage. We say we feel like a rat in a maze only when we feel trapped, controlled, or hopelessly confused. We forget that mazes have solutions, and prizes – and guess what? Life does too. I hope that someday people might start using the rat maze metaphor to describe happier things, like the feeling you get when you solve a good puzzle, or reap the rewards of a difficult journey.

The Rat Race

Another rodentine phrase with a negative bent, ‘the rat race’, refers to the fierce competition of business, or the hustle-and-bustle of urban life. The phrase can also call to mind the image of several rats competing in a maze, climbing over one another, trying to get to the cheese before everyone else. Cartoonists often depict the rat race with rodents frantically trying to escape an impossible labyrinth.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weird Word Origins (Paul McFedries, 2008) offers the rat maze as a possible catalyst for how we understand the term ‘rat race’ today. We don’t know for sure if the origin of the term does have anything to do with rats in mazes, but the current idea of ‘the rat race’ emerged in the 1930s, which was also around the time that rat mazes became popular in psychological research. However, before the invention of the rat maze, the term ‘rat race’ was already being used to describe a literal race between rats. In his 1851 novel Percy Hamilton, Lennox (Lord William Pitt) writes, “Milton was… up to every sport; for, in the following March, he was steward of a rat-race, held at a public house in Sheperds’ [sic] Market, where four of these ‘varmin’, decorated with different coloured ribands, were started for a sweepstakes, round the club-room, before a host of sportsmen.” And around the time that ‘rat race’ came to mean a struggle to get ahead, it also referred to a dance of a low-grade nature with elements of the Peabody, the One Step, and the Fox Trot. To pilots in the U.S. Air Force, the term was slang for a race between planes.

Despite its uncertain origin, when we hear ‘rat race’, it often makes us think of rats in mazes. Sometimes the phrase ‘rat in a maze’ is even substituted for ‘rat race’. In the 2013 film Gangster Squad, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) says that living in New York is ‘like being a rat in a maze’ with ‘everybody living on top of each other’.

Now, I’m no etymologist, but, as someone who studies rat behavior, I think that dueling planes and flashy dance moves are closer to today’s understanding of the rat race than a rat running through a maze. In most experiments, rats are put in the maze one at a time. There’s plenty of food to go round, and each rat has an equal opportunity to get it. The same can’t be said for the rat race of business.

Spencer Johnson’s Missing Cheese

Spencer Johnson, author of the acclaimed business allegory Who Moved My Cheese? (1998) also illustrated the rat race using a rodent maze, but with some changes. In his rendition, two mice and two ‘little people’ live in a maze in which cheese is available at a ‘cheese station’. However, one day, the cheese goes missing, and the characters must find a new source of cheese or else they’ll go hungry. Here the maze symbolizes the work environment, and the missing cheese some change in employment (for example, losing your job), which the characters must adapt to in order to survive. Of course, this is easier said than done. The little people complain about the injustice of the cheese having been taken away. The mice, on the other hand, happily search for new cheese. The moral of the story? Be more like the mice.

Although Johnson’s book about missing cheese means well, it may leave the reader with a bad aftertaste. Unfair changes at work typically come from upper management, who typically care more about their own paychecks than the comfort and wellbeing of their employees. It seems that the book is telling the average worker to simply accept the unfair decisions of their superiors. Forget that they took away your cheese (your income). Forget that they made it harder for you to provide for your family. Go find cheese elsewhere.

Johnson seems to say that no good can come from speaking out against unfair business decisions, even though strikes and other forms of protest have a history of improving the conditions of workers. Instead, Johnson says we should act more like adventurous rodents. But he knows little of rodent behavior. If you move the cheese and make it too difficult to find, mice will get frustrated too, just like people. Except mice are more likely to bite you.

What Does it Mean to be a Rat in a Maze?

Earlier, when I said the rat maze has become part of our collective consciousness, I asked how and why. The former question has been addressed: the rat maze shows up in film, television, literature, conversation, etc. It’s hard to miss. As to why – well, I believe the rat maze fills a void. The feeling of being a rat in a maze is something we all experience from time to time; but before the invention of the rat maze we did not have the right words or analogy to express the feeling. The need for such a term was so great that soon after the invention of the maze the term was eagerly adopted into general culture.

The rat maze provides us with a much-needed metaphor for the difficulty of making decisions in a world that’s already been laid out for us. And life is like a rat maze – but not necessarily in the bleak and depressing way Simon and Garfunkel say it is. We have patterns before us, and the patterns are beyond our control; but we also have options, and the ability to choose the paths we take. In this way, I agree with Charlie Gordon’s optimistic view. In Flowers for Algernon, he writes,

“Although we know the end of the maze holds death… I see now that the path I choose through the maze makes me who I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being – one of many ways – and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming.”

The power of the rat maze as a metaphor has no doubt contributed to its popularity in Western culture. The rat maze has also persisted as one of the most popular approaches in the scientific study of behavior. Scientists believe that the behavior of rodents in mazes can help inform us how people make decisions, or, more broadly speaking, how people interact with the world around them.

As Charlie Gordon suggests, there’s nothing wrong with being a rat in a maze. We only have to be careful about the paths we take. Our choices determine where we end up and who we become.

© Jarid Goodman 2021

Jarid Goodman has a PhD in Neuroscience from Texas A&M University and is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Delaware State University.

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