Previous studies suggested that cats aren’t really good at tracking objects they can’t see — but a new study shows they’re actually good at mapping your indoor position.
Cats have been with us for a very long time. However, there’s still much we don’t know about them, especially because cats are notoriously difficult to study. Compared to other pets like dogs, there have been fewer studies on cats. Saho Takagi, a researcher at Azabu University in Japan, wanted to shed new light on the minds of our adorable companions.
“My research motivation is simply to better understand cats’ mysterious minds. Cats are very familiar animals, but their minds are still shrouded in mystery compared to those of dogs because it is difficult to conduct experiments on cats. Cats don’t adjust to humans, they sleep when they want to, and they don’t like strange places or people,” Takagi told ZME Science.
In a new study, Takagi and colleagues analyzed whether cats create mental maps of their owners inside the house. Cats have excellent hearing abilities, Takagi explains, and this ability was used to reveal tendencies inside cats’ minds.
Having a mental representation of non-visible things is linked to something called “object permanence” — the ability to know that objects or creatures continue to exist even when they are not seen. Humans develop this ability early on, and several animals have been shown to have it as well (including chimps, bonobos, bears, and jays).
In order to show if cats have the same ability, researchers devised an experimental setup in which they played recordings of their owners’ voices for cats from different parts of the house to simulate a “teleportation” scenario. This type of experiment has also been done with vervet monkeys.
Three experiments were carried out. In the first one, the owner’s voice was played back sequentially from two separate locations. In the second experiment, the voice of a familiar cat was played, and in the last one, a nonspecific sound was played as a control, to see if the cats were simply reacting to any sound, or just to that of their owner.
Image credits: Takagi et al (2021).
The team found that the cat vocalizations used in the second experiment weren’t suitable for evaluating cats’ abilities for several reasons, but results showed that cats were surprised when their owners appeared to “teleport” (ie when their voice was played from a different room than the one they were previously in). These suggest that cats keep a mental representation of their owner
“We revealed that cats have socio-spatial cognition. Specifically, when they heard their owners’ voices, they were found to be mentally tracking the location of their invisible owners. Thinking mentally about what we cannot see is a cognitive ability that forms the basis for more complex thinking skills. This study suggests that cats acquire a variety of information from sounds and “think” about them,” Takagi says.
We asked Takagi whether playing the owners’ voice through a speaker has disadvantages for recognition, but apparently, this has already been addressed in previous studies and should not pose a problem for this type of study.
“It is true that the audible range of humans is different from that of cats. In addition, since we used human speakers in this experiment, the sound may be different from what cats usually hear. However, previous studies have shown that cats can correctly identify people from their sounds even when using human speakers. This result cannot be explained without assuming that the cats are able to identify their owners’ voices.”
Ultimately, the results can only be explained if cats mentally map their owners. In other words, your cat is constantly tracking you in the house, showing an important cognitive ability.