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Cats and String Theory

Updated on March 9, 2012

My Cat

I've never understood the cat/dog divide. I like cats and I like dogs and see no reason to push my loyalties to one side or the other. I've had a few dogs in my time and adored them all, however at the moment I don't have a dog...only a cat, so I'm feeling feline oriented. Meow!!

It's been a long time between cats - prior to this one I hadn't owned a cat since adolescence, so I've had to reacquaint myself with all their little pussy ways. My current cat, Roy, has been both an anxiety and a pleasure. A victim of the road toll, when he was six months old he ran under the wheel of my car as I was pulling into the driveway and crushed his pelvis. After some very expensive vet treatments and a few months of rehabilitation he recovered, though he'll never be the cat he would have been. Also, much to my initial, (shallow) dismay, his beauty was marred as he now has a permanent bald patch on his back because some of his hair follicles were destroyed in the accident. I briefly considered a fur transplant but dismissed the idea on the grounds of it being ludicrous. Strangers tend to look at him sideways, suspecting he has some kind of unsavoury mange but in truth, I no longer even notice it.

Despite this major setback, he has a good time and one positive from the disaster is that he now exhibits a very healthy respect for cars. When I drive up he hides around the corner of the house, tentatively poking his head out and wont make a full apppearance until the car has completely stopped. Roy can also climb, hunt (despite my attempts to stymie his prowess with bells), has catty friends and a full appetite, both for food and living. Did I mention that Roy is also extremely intelligent? In fact for a while there I almost thought he might be, well, yes...gifted.

The extremely handsome Roy
The extremely handsome Roy
Oscar the palliative care cat. Image from The New Scientist Blog
Oscar the palliative care cat. Image from The New Scientist Blog

An Emotional Connection

Any cat fancier will be familiar with the emotional connection a human can form with a cat. A relaxed, purring cat lying on it's back just asking for a stomach rub is a beautiful thing. They can be affectionate but usually on their terms - when they feel like it. Sometimes they are even spookily sensitive. Take the striking example of Oscar, the palliative care cat.

Oscar lived in the end-stage dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence (probably still does) after having been picked up as a stray kitten, wandering aimlessly in the streets. At the rehab centre he kept to himself and didn't take much notice of the residents, preferring his own company, as some cats do. Occasionally he could be bribed with a juicy titbit but basically he was anti-social - with one exception.

Somehow, by some mysterious, innate sense, Oscar knew when a patient was going to die and he would curl up on their bed and stay there, a few hours before they shook off their mortal coil. It seems incredible but it happened time and again. As David Dosa, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University in Providence said "If we hadn't been witnessing it over the course of the last year, I wouldn't believe it myself." Why or how this happened, no-one is quite sure, though some scientists have speculated that there may have been near death biochemical clues that Oscar picked up on. In any case, according to staff in the unit, he provided some comfort to many people who would otherwise have died alone.

There's no firm consensus among scientists as to whether cats experience real emotion. They know they feel emotional responses such as pain and fear etc but do they experience emotion as humans; dissapointment, regret, love? Well it's hard to tell how deep they go because of course, they can't tell us. One thing researchers have discovered is that cats are emotional manipulators - they've learnt to vocalize specifically for humans in a way that mimics human babies crying. That's pretty clever eh..? Which brings me to the title of this article - just how clever are cats really? Can they understand string theory for example?

A cat grappling with the complexities of string theory.  Image from The New Scientist website.
A cat grappling with the complexities of string theory. Image from The New Scientist website.

String theory...

Well, appears they can't. Even Roy, the cat with the big IQ, doesn't get it. Chimpanzees get it..and so do ravens, pigeons and certain monkeys. Ever wondered why cats enjoy fruitlessly playing with a piece of string? According to a 2009 article in The New Scientist - Why Cats Fail to Grasp String Theory, it 's because they don't really understand (or care) that it will lead nowhere:

Working with 15 shelter cats, Osthaus's team attached fish or biscuit treats to one end of a string. A plastic screen with a small gap at the bottom separated cats from their reward, requiring the felines to tug on the string to get the treat.

With a single string attached to the food, most cats learned to paw at the string to get a snack. But when Osthaus' team introduced a second piece of string, unconnected to any foods, cats tugged on the correct string less than half the time.

This suggests that the cats couldn't infer cause-and-effect relationships between two objects and could only learn an association from scratch each time.

New scientist

Dissappointing Result

Tch, tch...a failure to grasp even the fundamentals of string theory is very dissapointing for cat supporters.

But cat loathing dog lovers needn't get too smug about this, because - dogs don't get it either.


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