What Is My Cat Thinking?

By Neuroskeptic | March 19, 2013 3:08 pm

Will we ever know what animals think about? Do they ‘think’ at all?

I’ve been wondering lately about the behaviour of my cat. He’s taken to sitting or lying by the window, staring out into the front garden. He does this for hours on end, as far as I can tell; when he’s not sleeping or eating, it’s the main thing he does. He started doing this a few months ago.

But what is he looking at?

The best guess I have is that he’s looking out for the neighbour’s cat, who occasionally comes through the hedge and into my cat’s turf – he’s even tried to bust in through the cat-flap a couple of times. My cat’s deeply offended by these incursions and the invader always emerges in the front garden. So it seems plausible that my cat could be watching out for him.

…but does the fact that it ‘seems plausible’ – to my, human, way of thinking – matter? Or am I just anthropomorphizing here, trying to explain my cat’s behaviour as if it were a human behaviour? Maybe he’s not looking at, or out for, anything, or at least nothing that I could understand. Maybe he just likes the view.

Now as a neuroscientist, this makes me think: could his brain hold the answer? Suppose we could measure his neural activity when he’s confronted with the neighbour’s cat. And then suppose we observed that the same pattern of brain activity was present (perhaps less strongly) when he’s looking out of that window. Would that activity be evidence that he was, indeed, looking for that cat? Likewise, if we didn’t find any such reactivation, would that suggest he wasn’t?

That’s a very interesting question, I feel. The skeptical position would be that, no, it doesn’t tell us anything about his ‘state of mind’: his brain activity wouldn’t enlighten us as to the contents of his consciousness, if indeed he’s conscious at all. After all, the skeptic could say, we have no idea how neural firing relates to consciousness in humans, let alone animals.

Yet although I can’t dispute that logic, I do think that to find neighbours-cat-esque activity in my cat’s brain as he stares out that window would surely mean something…?

  • Semigrounded

    Lure the neighbor’s cat past another window on a regular basis and see if he changes windows.
    Or, have a diner party and leave the television on. When someone sits in front of it, as they inevitably will, scratch behind their ear. If this results in purring, lean over and whisper, “you’ve been scienced.”

  • jgold85

    Your cat could be looking for the neighbor’s cat but not have the self awareness to reflect on that looking. Similarly, your cat could be looking for the neighbors cat, but not with any particular overt intention (just as a gazelle, say, is constantly “looking for” predators because it’s got some predator avoidance mechanisms constantly running). It isn’t clear to me why you’re attempting to link something like a looking behavior to conscious awareness or conscious control of that looking behavior?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That’s true. But supposing he was looking for the other cat, I doubt he would be aware that “I am looking out for [other cat]”. that would be self-awareness as you say. Almost certainly he has no concept of “I”.

      However when he’s looking out for that cat, I would imagine that he has some active ‘mental image’ of that cat, a sense that it’s ‘out there’ somewhere in the front garden – and that’s what he’s looking for. So from his perspective he might not be ‘watching out for’ something that might or might not be there; he might be searching for something that, to him, is there, but hidden.

      That might be completely wrong, but this is why I think the brain activation would be enlightening…

      • jgold85

        That’s an interesting distinction – the possibility of a future intruder versus a hidden, but present, intruder. The truth is, I know a bit more about big cats than about house cats, but assuming that there’s some homology, lots of big cats spend lots of time patrolling their territories (this is, incidentally, probably where the pacing stereotypy in zoos comes from – a natural, but mis-expressed behavior). Seems to me that window-watching could similarly be an artifact of the same basic territory-patrolling behavior.

        On the other hand, maybe what’s going on outside the window is simply more salient than the more static indoor environment.

  • Steve

    My cat does the same exact thing. Ever since she discovered another cat across the way in the window, my cat constantly goes to our window and deliberately looks into the neighboring window. Often, the other cat is there. My cat’s tail twitches like crazy and she meows a bit. Then I feed her and she seems to forget all about the other cat. But then 5 minutes later she’s back on the window sill, looking for the other cat. I’m certain she’s aware that she’s looking for the other cat.

  • petrossa

    Cats,dogs most animals are quite obvious what they’re thinking, it’s just up to the observer to be aware. Absolutely conscious (to a degree) it manipulates you to behave in certain ways. I had a cat that hurt it’s paw so it limped. My girlfriend bestowed it with extra love and affection. But after while she got suspicious why the cat kept on limping whilst the vet said everything was fine. So she spied on the cat and noticed that when the cat thought it couldn’t be seen it walked normally, and as soon as she came into sight it limped.
    Preplanned conscious manipulative action.

    • http://twitter.com/infinidiv infinidiv

      Or operant conditioning. The cat learned that the limp combined with the presence of your girlfriend was associated with extra ear scratching, tummy rubbing and treats. Hell, I’d be limping! 😀

      But I think there is a much deeper message in this than “is the cat conscious”? I think over the next 50 years we will become better and better at determining what level or type of consciousness other animals have. The much more interesting question, in my opinion, is what does it say about our consciousness? Most of what goes on in the brain is unconscious. Awareness is like the icing on the cake, and looking at evolution, it seems unlikely in the extreme that it has all been changed dramatically since the common ancestor we have with cats.

      So it isn’t “is the cat conscious?” but rather “what part of awareness do we share with cats, what do we have they don’t, and what do they have that we don’t?”. Not only do I think that is much more likely to be a fruitful discussion, but it also leads to much more interesting experiments to figure this out.

      @semigrounded:disqus the tv idea is brilliant… we don’t ever question whether the individual made conscious decision to sit in front of it. Maybe his brain is unconsciously soothed by 30fps 😉

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  • petrossa

    For sure there is operand conditioning, but if it would be only that, then the limping would be constant, presence or no presence. The cat being aware, decides to limp or not. It is a hassle to fake a limp so when not in ‘presence’ it doesn’t. That takes advanced planning and awareness.

    A genius wrote:

    “We logically have an anthropocentric world view. We assume ourselves to be superior because we believe we are superior. A type of extreme ‘dubito, ergo cogito ergo sum’. Other animals doubt also, take decisions, deceive, tease, play, have feelings of love, hate, joy etc.

    Their philosophy of life we do not understand just as little as they understand ours.

    But by their standards they sure can feel superior over humans with good reason.”


  • Buddy199

    We inherited all of our physical structures from animal ancestors. Why is it so hard to believe we have also inherited consciousness from them as well? It’s just ridiculous to believe that we “invented” consciousness as an evolutionary first. As anyone who owns a pet knows, animals are capable of acute perception, judgment, memory, dream states, emotion, dream states, etc.

  • Thamus

    As I read this, my cat is sitting on top of the bookcase before a half-open window, staring out with alert-looking curiosity. Last year, a pigeon landed on the sill and he caught it and raced off into the living room with it. After a struggle of fur and feathers I rescued the pigeon and managed to shoo it back outside. Every time a bird flies past he twitches excitedly and I anthropomorphically wonder if the cat returns again and again to the same sentry duty because he somehow remembers the encounter (a whole year ago) and ‘hopes’ to repeat the hunt. The odd cat occasionally comes into view outside, but he only looks interested when a pigeon flies near. The ritual lasts for an hour or two a day, the rest of his time being spent in other routines – exploring outside, calling me to his empty dish, sleeping on the couch (morning) or the bed (evening).

    Heaven help us if we ever encounter galactic aliens. We cannot even share a simple thought with pets that have been our closest companions for thousands of years or with extremely ‘intelligent’ elephants, dolphins, whales. And still my cat can, with one mew, or even a soundless nudge, correctly convey to me that he wants to go out, wants a treat, wants hisdish in the other room refilled. I know who the dumb animal is in the relationship, and I don’t think it’s the cat.

  • http://twitter.com/MillieDncn Millie Duncan

    Question..why would a dog pull with his front paws rather than teeth a canine pal that was hit and killed across a multi lane highway to the side of the road..video is on youtube

  • http://twitter.com/cslamo Claudio Slamovits

    I’m not sure that the skeptical position must be to assume that the cat doesn’t think. Wouldn’t the opposite be the default position (null hypothesis?). As mammals we share a lot of our anatomy and physiology with cats (and apes and dogs for the case), so why would we assume that there is such a drastic difference between them and us? Moreover, the “animals can’t think” position is rather what one expects from a theistic or creationist view that considers humans essentially different and superior beings.

  • http://www.252cats.com/ Stephaine Knight

    my cutie cat whenever think some thing its a real tough time for me as she planned to give me something too hard….my daughter and cat are really two nightmares at my house both think in a destructive way

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  • LeAnn Duncan

    I know what my cats aren’t thinking. ” Hey I want to go sit by the winow, ” because they have no clue what a window is. It baffles my mind, as I play different scenarios in my head as to what could be going on their heads. I do know that my cats are not self-aware, so with that being said, I would doubt there is consciousness

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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