Complex relational processes underlying place navigation learning were analyzed by minimizing the relational elements available to rats. The animals navigated in a standard water maze in darkness using controlled remote visual cues (back-lit shapes in opaque buckets aimed at the pool to keep the background dark) while being tracked by an infrared camera and computer. Learning was similar with 2 (AB) or 4 (ABCD) cues and as good as in a fully lit room with many cues (asymptotic escape time t=5-7 s). The ABCD-trained rats were not impaired by removal of any 2 cues (t=7). For AB-trained rats, adding 2 new cues (ABEF) or replacing AB with EF (EF) caused small (t=11) or big disruption (t=20), respectively. By block 2, both groups (ABEF, EF) returned to asymptotic performance. But testing the ABEF rats on block 2 with only EF indicated that EF was learned (t=12) but not as well as when only EF was present (t=5). Thus transfer from a redundant to a minimal cue condition is immediate and easier than vice versa. Theoretical implications are discussed.
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