Cats seem to grasp the laws of physics

June 14, 2016, Springer
Researcher Saho Takagi holding her cat. Credit: Mayu Takagi

Cats understand the principle of cause and effect as well as some elements of physics. Combining these abilities with their keen sense of hearing, they can predict where possible prey hides. These are the findings of researchers from Kyoto University in Japan, led by Saho Takagi and published in Springer's journal Animal Cognition.

Previous work conducted by the Japanese team established that cats predict the presence of invisible objects based on what they hear. In the present study, the researchers wanted to find out if cats use a causal rule to infer if a container holds an object, based on whether it is shaken along with a sound or not. The team also wanted to establish if cats expect an object to fall out or not, once the container is turned over.

Thirty were videotaped while an experimenter shook a container. In some cases this action went along with a rattling sound. In others it did not, to simulate that the vessel was empty. After the shaking phase, the container was turned over, either with an object dropping down or not.

Two experimental conditions were congruent with physical laws, where shaking was accompanied by a (no) sound and an (no) object to fall out of the container. The other two conditions were incongruent to the laws of physics. Either a rattling sound was followed by no object dropping out of the container or no sound while shaking led to a falling object.

The cats looked longer at the containers which were shaken together with a noise. This suggests that cats used a physical law to infer the existence (or absence) of objects based on whether they heard a rattle (or not). This helped them predict whether an object would appear (or not) once the was overturned.

The animals also stared longer at containers in incongruent conditions, meaning an dropped despite its having been shaken noiselessly or the other way around. It is as if the cats realized that such conditions did not fit into their grasp of causal logic.

"Cats use a causal-logical understanding of noise or sounds to predict the appearance of invisible objects," says Takagi.

Researchers suggest that species' surroundings influence their ability to find out information based on what they hear. The ecology of cats' natural hunting style may therefore also favor the ability for inference on the basis of sounds. Takagi explains that hunting cats often need to infer the location or the distance of their prey from sounds alone because they stake out places of poor visibility. Further research is needed to find out exactly what see in their mind's eye when they pick up noises, and if they can extract information such as quantity and size from what they hear.

Explore further: What does your cat say?

More information: Saho Takagi et al, There's no ball without noise: cats' prediction of an object from noise, Animal Cognition (2016). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1001-6

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23 comments

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humy
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 14, 2016
"...Two experimental conditions were congruent with physical laws, where shaking was accompanied by a (no) sound and an (no) object to fall out of the container.
..."

Exactly WHICH law of physics says or even vaguely indirectly implies containers that make a rattle sound when shaken have an object in them and containers that make no rattle sound when shaken have no object in them? What is the name of this law and what is its equation?
I have studied physics at university and can tell you here is NO such formally stated law of physics!

Perhaps this shows cats have an extremely rudimentary understanding of the laws of gravity such that they know that objects in containers generally fall out when the containers are tipped; but that's it! I think that is far tar too trivial to deserve to be asserted as them "grasp the laws of physics".
Tektrix
4 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2016
It's quite a stretch to equate pattern recognition and event-expectation to "a grasp of physical laws."
antigoracle
2.5 / 5 (8) Jun 14, 2016
teslaberry
1 / 5 (7) Jun 14, 2016
cats cannot talk so this research is stupid.
epoxy
Jun 14, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (9) Jun 14, 2016
@humy: They are referring to causality. (As described in special relativity, if you want the physical basis for that specifically.)

Sure, there is a correlation implied, that prey animals/rattling objects tend to make sounds.

But in both cases note the "congruence" modifier. I.e. they say *there isn't* a specific physical law. They say the experiment show that "Cats understand the principle of cause and effect as well as some elements of physics."
wilds
5 / 5 (6) Jun 14, 2016
All that time in the box paid off. Schrodinger would be proud.
Annceline
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2016
My cat organizes his toys. I'll find all the catnip socks in one corner, all the balls in another, and stuffed toys of like shape and size together. How does this play into his understanding of physics?
laszlogm
1 / 5 (3) Jun 14, 2016
Of course, they do. Only we humans have problems differentiating cause and effect.
Ralph
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2016
These are interesting experiments, and it might be possible to show a connection between them and "the laws of physics" -- but no such connection is shown here.
dan42day
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 14, 2016
My cat once spelled out E=MC2 with poop balls in her litter box!

Seriously though, I once bought one of those self-cleaning litter boxes that uses a mechanical comb activated by a motion sensor. The Maine Coon was scared to death of it, but the Siamese was so fascinated with it that she spent hours the first night playing with it. She would sit in it and watch the comb waiting for it to move, but it wouldn't until she left the box. So I flipped a switch on the outside that would cycle it regardless. Afterwards, she got back in and pawed at the switch to try and get it to start up. Cats can be surprisingly intelligent at times.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (7) Jun 14, 2016
@wild
All that time in the box paid off. Schrodinger would be proud.

I was waiting for someone to tip their hat to Schrodinger
Who would have thought it would be from a newcomer
It is quite a way to make an entry on Physorg
But the opportunity was right here on this board
You just dared to give it a try
Congratulation you start with a high five.
Otto_Szucks
1 / 5 (7) Jun 14, 2016
Well, I'm fairly certain that cats understand at least SOME of the "laws of physics" when they are somehow able to leap onto a ledge that is 4 - 5 feet higher (sometimes more) than the surface from where they jumped - and land on their feet.
That would be like a 6 foot tall man jumping unaided from the ground up to the roof that is 12 feet above the ground.

Raccoons are also able to defy gravity. If there is food on a patio table, a raccoon will stand on his hind feet and stretch up to grasp the table's edge, then use his front paws to pull himself up to eat your corn on the cob and salads. Little buggers.
Da Schneib
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 14, 2016
Awareness of that which cannot be seen is abstract knowledge. My cats are well aware of what it means if something is shaken and makes noise. And they are always very interested in something inside something else. A mouse toy in a bag is a favorite enrichment activity.

And cats are aware of that which cannot be sensed at all: if they weren't you could not teach them not to engage in disruptive acts, something they learn readily. They aren't that bright, so your best strategy is both positive and negative reinforcement. My cats almost always scratch on a scratching post or mat; I make sure they are regularly praised for doing so, that the posts and mats are near their preferred sleeping areas (they most often scratch upon awakening), and that they are strictly disciplined for scratching in undesirable areas. My furniture and carpet remains intact.
[contd]
Da Schneib
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 14, 2016
[contd]
I would say that pattern recognition indicates sophisticated knowledge of physics when it involves novel objects. This also indicates abstract thinking: the definition of a class.
Da Schneib
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 15, 2016
My cat organizes his toys. I'll find all the catnip socks in one corner, all the balls in another, and stuffed toys of like shape and size together. How does this play into his understanding of physics?
Whether it indicates understanding of physics may be questionable; but it's obvious from your anecdote that his ability to form and apply abstract classes is strong. And this ability is the basis of physics.
antigoracle
2.8 / 5 (9) Jun 15, 2016
My cat organizes his toys. I'll find all the catnip socks in one corner, all the balls in another, and stuffed toys of like shape and size together. How does this play into his understanding of physics?

Hmm..interesting. He can cat.egorize and possibly cat.alog which I would say is definitely a cat.alyst for further study.
humy
5 / 5 (5) Jun 18, 2016
@humy: They are referring to causality. (As described in special relativity, if you want the physical basis for that specifically.)

Sure, there is a correlation implied, that prey animals/rattling objects tend to make sounds.

But in both cases note the "congruence" modifier. I.e. they say *there isn't* a specific physical law. They say the experiment show that "Cats understand the principle of cause and effect as well as some elements of physics."


But, for example, a mouse can also respond to cause and effect thus giving a possible impression it understands the basic concept. I am not too impressed by that. And why do they still imply they understand the "laws of physics" when they mean anything but literally that? Again, I am not too impressed. In science it is important to state what you literally mean and don't make such misleading statements.
epoxy
Jun 18, 2016
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KaFaraqGatri
Jun 20, 2016
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Sheik_Yerbuti
Jun 23, 2016
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Sheik_Yerbuti
Jun 23, 2016
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Otto_Szucks
3 / 5 (2) Jun 23, 2016
Do you understand the ways of women? If not, then how are you supposed to understand cats and their ways?

And no, that's not a "sexist" answer.

Why is it that women enjoy having cats more often than dogs? When I go hunting with my buddies, I take my dog with me. Cats aren't welcome in the mountains.

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