Think, Think, Think!!
They don’t think in the human sense of the term, but (apart from some hard-wired reflexes) they perform mental processing on incoming information and make decisions on how to act. They have an internal representation of the physical world, they comprehend certain physical laws (that objects don’t cease to exist when out of sight), they have a good sense of time, and they can identify other cats, a number of humans and a range of objects. These are the sort of things most humans do without conscious effort.
Intelligence is defined by human beings and is judged against human abilities. Children learn to look where someone is pointing. With cats, if you point at an object, your cat looks at your finger, not at where your finger is pointing. To attract a cat’s attention to an object, you have to tap the object itself.
One measure of intelligence is self-awareness. The test for self-awareness is to see how an animal reacts to its own reflection. Humans and higher primates recognise their own image in a mirror. If you put some paint powder on a child’s nose or a chimp’s face and let it look in a mirror, the child or chimp will rub the blob on its own face, not the mirror. Cats first check behind the mirror for the strange cat, but soon learn that the mirror cat is not real and ignore it (learning to ignore it is necessary, otherwise its own reflection in a puddle might stop the cat from drinking). Unlike humans and higher primates, they do not appear to understand that the mirror cat is itself.
The Mirror Test!
Sacha Scofield [personal correspondence] suggests an alternative view on feline self-awareness. She suggests that the mirror test does not accommodate the different mind-sets of social and non-social subjects. The supposition is that cats lose interest in their reflection in the mirror because it appears to be another cat which doesn’t interact with the subject. Sacha believes that cats understand mirrors to be reflections of the real world, and that they will use mirrors to observe objects that that are out of their line of sight. Sacha has observed her own cats apparently watching each other, and watching their owner, via a mirror. In some cases, the cat has met the eyes of its owner in the reflection and meowed a greeting, demonstrating recognition of the image. After moving house, the older cat (15 year old Flossy) used the mirror more frequently to observe other household members. She can see from the lounge to the bedroom and vice versa using the mirror. She also uses it to observe me in bed, usually when she wants attention. She seems to use the mirror to compensate for her deafness being able to detect whether another cat is approaching from behind.
To test whether a cat properly understands a mirror would involve sitting a cat in front of a mirror and the researcher standing behind it. Does the cat respond to the researcher’s reflected gestures, or does it turn round and respond to the researcher? Because the cat may also react to sounds made by the researcher while gesturing, this is harder to assess.
A Cats’s Appearance
Sacha proposes that cats are uninterested in their own image because they are not interested in their own external appearance. Animals that recognise their own reflections, such as humans, monkeys and parrots, are social animals whose mating and social opportunities rely on their physical attractiveness to other members their species. Humans with little interest in hierarchy or social interaction often have a correspondingly low interest in their own appearance (conversely, there are plenty of stereotypes of “vain” mirror-gazing men and women). Feline hierarchy, such as it is, is based on fitness and prowess and not on attractiveness. Unlike visually oriented species such as humans, monkeys and parrots, cats perceive the world through a mix of sound, scent, touch (whiskers) and sight. They are more adept at seeing movement patterns than static objects. She argues that even if the cat recognises its own reflected image, as a non-social animal it may simply lack the motivation to react to any changes in its own appearance viewed in the mirror.
In “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness” neurologist Antonio Damasio claims that the neurological structures of consciousness/self-awareness are present in all mammals. It recognises the similarities in mammalian brains. This is one of relatively few explanations of consciousness based on actual neurological evidence. Just because a cat is considered (by classical science) not self-aware, does not make it non-intelligent. Feline intelligence is geared to the cat’s ecological niche and is constrained by physical limitations and by innate behaviours. Those innate behaviours are hard-wired into the brain for survival reasons and to free up thinking areas of the brain. In its lifetime, your cat hones its innate behaviours and learns many things that evolution did not anticipate – opening doors, mastering cat flaps, tricks (if you have the time and patience), recognising the sound of your car engine and waking you up at a set time each morning.