I hope you all had a good Halloween weekend! I certainly did. My uni pals and I got all fancy dressed up and found ourselves in a sweaty nightclub with sticky floors, which was great fun.

George and the Dragon!

Something that I’ve never really understood about Halloween, is why dressing up as a cat is seen as appropriate ‘scary’ attire. I’ll be honest, I have done it in the past (I’m not proud), but that doesn’t mean I get it, or that it’s okay. CATS ARE NOT SCARY, they’re adorable. How an earth did the whole cat Halloween thing start?! Honestly, I just don’t understand.

Talking of cats, I’d like to introduce my Marley. He was the love of my life that was sadly taken away from me earlier this year. We were best friends. I loved him. He loved me – and at the time, that was something I truly believed. However whether cats really do love their owners, is a common debate – often between scientists and cat owners.

Marley and Me
Marley and Me
Family photo before the end of uni ball
Family photo before the end of uni ball

But let’s get one thing straight. I am not a crazy cat lady – I am a SCIENTIST. So let me tell you a few things about Marley, that made me think* that he loved me.

First of all, he absolutely loved being around people. He’d snake around your feet whenever you walked anywhere in the house. Or as soon as you sat down on the sofa with your breakfast, he’d jump on your lap before you got the chance to pick up your bowl of granola. It wasn’t just because he wanted the food, because he’d do it when I didn’t have food on me! And sometimes I’d let him have a little taste of my leftover milk, but he was never really interested. He just wanted to curl up into a ball on my lap and go to sleep. This clingy behaviour surely is a sign of affection no?! I mean, I carry out very similar behaviours towards my boyfriend when I am feeling emotional and vulnerable and ashamed (AKA feeling hungover – I don’t deal with that very well).

Secondly, he was the most vocal cat you’ll ever meet. Constantly meowing at people. If he knew I was in my room, he’d meow and meow until I let him in. Meowing isn’t something that cats do to other cats, it’s purely a way for them to communicate with humans. Now, listen here. My cat was TRYING TO TALK TO ME. Surely that means he loved me, right?

Maybe not. I mean, I did receive a scratch or 2 (or 3 or 4) from him from time to time. Let’s go back to that * sentence there. Marley made me THINK that he loved me. This is because humans have something called Theory of Mind – and because of this, humans attribute emotions to others. This is because Theory of Mind causes us to assume that other animals feel the same way as we do. So basically, because I loved my cat, my Theory of Mind was tricking me into thinking that he loved me too!

Theory of mind is crucial for behaviours that make us human. Such as: empathy, reciprocity, peacemaking, and perhaps most importantly – morality. But it is very difficult to test for morality and Theory of Mind, because for this you need to test if an animal is conscious. The best way we can do this is by using mirrors, to see if the animal is self-aware.

Humans, from a very young age, show signs of being able to recognise their reflection on a mirror. Other animals, such as apes, dolphins and elephants have also shown such behaviour – by responding to a mark made on their face then pointing towards it when shown their reflection. However when you put a cat in front of a mirror, it freaks the hell out. Marley used to charge at my mirror in my room and tried to bat is reflection– it was very clear that he did not recognise this as himself, and acted towards it like it was another cat.

Does this lack of self-awareness mean that cats are not conscious and therefore cannot love? Not necessarily. It is unsure whether self-awareness and consciousness are the same, in fact, it’s probably likely that they’re not, but we have no way to tell this at the moment and mirror-self recognition tests are the best thing we have. But there are lots of problems with mirror recognition tests. The biggest issue is that the mirror self recognition tests ask a lot of an animal cognitively. For example, even 1 year old humans do not pass this test – but they are conscious! So yeah let’s be honest, we can’t rely on them. (Sooooo he did love me?)

Well there you have it then! I’ll let you decide whether you think your cat loves you or not. Even after all that though, I still do want to believe he loved me. Maybe I am a crazy cat lady after all.

See you soon!

Alina

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