Soprano syndrome in the mousehouse?

One of the first things my mice did when introduced to their new Chinese-made home (details on that to come later) was to seek out their new boundaries. Then, almost as a herd, they sought out the little clear red mouse house in the center of the cage. Boundary, then home. I note this same basic instinct in the ethology of the three categories of mammals I observe the most: my nephews, my horse, and, now, my four black6 lab mice.

My nephews are constantly pushing their boundaries--precisely because they want something to push back and thus assure them of some safety net.

My horse fights with me over boundaries--my leg behind his shoulder pushing him to bend, the reins on the bits asking him to engage. He seems to need to choose a leader, a boundary, and then to declare it safe--home--and submit.

I will stipulate to the anthropomorphism in the previous paragraph, and sincerely apologize to my horse for it. As I have long maintained to my animal-manic friends, "Why anthropomorpize--you're just selling the animal short!"

The mice, however, follow a different pattern. After their initial foray and retreat, they back themselves up against the cage wall and crouch. This posture--which has clear zoomorphic expression in today's Congress, the streets of Manhattan, and among the boys at most high school dances--has a technical term: Thigmotaxis. Note it well, as we will often return to it. (For a primer, see the Journal of General Psychology, April 2005.)

The term was coined in the mid-1930s,  when researchers first began various behavioural tests to measure mouse stress and anxiety behaviours-- in short, "murine emotionality." In the classic open field test, in which a mouse is introduced to a novel environment with a large un-markered open space, Hall and Ballechy ( 1932) noted the consistent "wall backing behaviour" of mice confronted with unknown large spaces.

But let's look at how humans model this behaviour. One I might call Tony Soprano syndrome. Remember, Tony owns the Bada Bing Club, and he always sits at the bar--and if ya don like it eh stugatz this! But when "the Tones" goes for a meeting elsewhere, he always sits in the corner. Even when he goes to see his daughter Meadow at a nice restaurant. He knows he doesn't own this turf and he's literally got to protect his back or he'll get his ass shot off. Call it thigmotaxthis.

To me, the other zoomorphic manifestation of thigmotaxis can be found in modern commercial and public architecture. It seems to me that we have such a dread fear of emptyness that every single square foot of space must be crammed with some commercial or iconic delight. How else do you explain the replacement of the public square with the modern strip mall and "galleria" shopping center (outside of the economics of it)? If they could talk, the mice could explain.

Perhaps this is because mice, like horses and nephews, are constantly exposed to novel sources of authority-- a new idiot in the lab, a strange uncle, an insistent new rider. I was thinking about this when, the other day, I encountered a "former" mouse person, as he called himself.

He was ringing me up at the counter of the pet store and engaged me in some banter about the 127.89 I was spending on mouse stuff. "Used to be into mice," he muttered. "Yeah. Hadda buncha females, then let some dudes in there an' guess what?"

Doo-dah-doo! I dunno genius--what?

"Next thing you know, I got 500!"

Wow! Magic!

"'n' then I got inta something else." He smiled and winked at me.

"What was that?" I said, signing the credit slip and looking for a wall to back up against.