Am I smarter than the average goldfish?

I think it was Gloria Steinem who said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. I have no idea what point she was trying to make (OK, I do…but I don’t care), but current research indicates that she was vastly understating the piscine vehicular aptitude. Perhaps you’ve seen this video:

Israeli laws concerning fish drivers are known to be really lax.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about the implications of the findings arising from this research project. For one thing, it debunks the unfortunate myth that a goldfish’s memory is about three seconds long. [As a result, I now can’t even claim superiority over a fish.]

According to Dr. Ronen Segev, “a neuroscientist who has been studying fish cognition for 16 years” [talk about added excitement on one’s resume], fish brains aren’t all that different from human brains; they’ve just evolved in different environments. And because this little experiment shows that even the brains of goldfish can adapt to new stimuli, then we humans should be able to claim the same adaptability. So, I have questions.

First, why are so many humans worse drivers than these goldfish? If Dr. Segev could figure out a way to give a fish a cellphone, would that narrow the skill gap?

But more importantly — and personally — why can’t I learn to speak Spanish? I mean, I’ve got a 1500+ day streak on Duolingo and I still don’t know what the subjunctive mood means, much less how to say something in it. If my progress in learning espaƱol was tested and measured using the GDC — the Goldfish Driving Criteria — my performance would be the equivalent of a single vehicle multiple rollover accident ending by sideswiping a Highway Patrol car before careening into a gas station and blowing it up.

On the other hand, perhaps I don’t have the right motivation. After all, the WSJ article goes on to say that researchers have also taught rats to drive, and did so by rewarding them with Froot Loops. Of course, the researchers had to hide all the wiring in the ratmobiles because the occupants chewed on them, something I don’t think I’d do. (Although given the choice between wiring and Froot Loops…)

[For the record, Kelloggs did not respond to a request to comment on why rats appeared to have an equal preference between the cereal and the wiring.]

It’s only fair to point out that there are some legit findings arising from this type of research, things that help us better understand human physiology. In the case of the rat drivers, the training that the rodents experienced in learning to pilot a vehicle resulted in a more favorable balance between the hormone that contributes to a feeling of stress (cortisol) and a steroid that shields us from those feelings (dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA). Again, it’s the training itself that resulted in those positive physiological changes, regardless of the outcome of the training.

In other words, in a way, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. I guess I’ll keep plugging away at Duolingo.