When it comes to cats and physics, most people don’t get much further than Erwin Schrödinger and his gedanken experiment with a feline locked in a box. But research by Saho Takagi and her colleagues at Kyoto University in Japan suggests that not only do cats play the leading role in physics thought experiments, they may also have an innate understanding of (some of) physics.
We’re not suggesting that SpaceX or Blue Origin is looking to hire cat rocket scientists any time soon or that the cats know what to do with Schrödinger’s wavefunction. But Takagi’s study provides evidence that our furry little friends may have a better understanding of causation than previously thought, and they may also have a “rudimentary understanding of gravity.”
The study involved 30 Japanese cats: eight pets and 22 residents of cat cafes. The researchers tested the cats using a plastic box with some iron balls. Normally the balls were free to rattle around in the container and fell out when the box was inverted. But on the other side of the open end of the box, they added an electromagnet. When engaged, the magnet kept the balls from rattling or falling out.
The cats were tested individually. Once the researchers had a cat’s attention, they first shook the box (horizontally so nothing fell out) for five seconds. Then the box was inverted for five seconds, allowing the balls to fall out (or not, if the magnet was activated). Finally, the box was placed upright on the floor for the cat, who was free to examine it for 15 seconds. Throughout, the cats’ activity was recorded on a pair of video cameras for later analysis.
Each cat was tested under four different conditions. Sound/Object, where the balls rattled and fell out when the box was flipped; Sound/No object, where the balls could rattle but not fall out; No sound/object, where the balls didn’t rattle but did fall out; and finally No sound/No object.
Only the first and last of these terms correspond to the world as we think cats understand it – we assume they know nothing of electromagnetism or the cunning of human scientists. Takagi hypothesized that the feline participants would be more interested in the two incongruent conditions (Sound/No Object and No Sound/Object).
As anyone with cats can probably predict, during the shaking phase, the test cats were much more interested when the box was rattling than when it was quiet (determined by measuring the time each cat looked at the shaken box). But in the second phase, the incongruous circumstances caught their attention, when the balls didn’t come out after rattling or fell to the ground despite not making a sound.
In other words, the cats concluded that a rattling box should deposit balls when upside down and a silent box should not. When it didn’t, their attention was aroused. The authors also suggest that this may be evidence that cats have some understanding of gravity.
Be careful before you tie your cat to help with Kerbal Space Program. Although the study is based on the results of 30 individual felines, a further 15 had to be excluded from analysis, mainly because they were too scared or too disinterested in the whole process. Not every cat is a budding physicist, it seems.
animal cognition, 2016. DOI 10.1007/s10071-016-1001-6 (About DOIs).