A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.
And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.
To understand this story, you need to know a bit about the interior layout of our house. My wife and I share a master bedroom which is dominated by a queen-sized waterbed. The adjacent room is my wife’s office and personal space, not visible from the master bedroom. My office, where I’m typing now, is partially visible across the hall through the bedroom door.
Sugar has a well-established end-of-day ritual. When humans get in the big bed, she jumps onto it, then makes a couple of circuits around the perimeter as though checking for potential intruders. The impression of martial watchfulness is a bit countered by the fact that she’s normally purring like a truck engine throughout.
Then she picks a human more or less at random and snuggles with said human for a while (if purring had not previously commenced, it is certain to at this point). She then switches to the other human. She seems to have a rule that the the humans must get approximately equal attention, and is quite conscientious about it (if “conscientious” can be meaningfully applied to a cat). More snuggling ensues. When she has thoroughly fuzz-bombed both of us, she picks a spot to sleep in next to either human, and does so.
A few months ago something deranged this cozy routine. After the playtime with humans, at the point where she’d previously gone to sleep, she started jumping off the bed and wandering out the bedroom door. We would then hear what sounded like distressed yowling for a while – not at the level of “I’m injured”, but “Something is bothering me!”. She’d generally let us call her back in after a few minutes, and then go to sleep quite normally.
We couldn’t seem to catch her when she was vocalizing, though, and it became something of a mystery why it was happening. We carefully investigated the state of the food dish, water bowl, and litterbox just after several of these incidents, but they seemed irrelevant. She definitely wasn’t in my office when this was happening; we’d see her in there. But the acoustics of the house made it impossible to localize her exactly.
We became concerned enough to talk to our vet, and discussed medical hypotheses including hyperthyroidism and feline senile dementia. Neither quite fit, as she seemed in rude good health for a cat her age (enough so that our vet seldom fails to remark how lucky we are).
Last night my wife finally caught what Sugar was doing when she was vocalizing: looking at herself in the full-length mirror in my wife’s room. (Now, reading this, my wife says it’s actually the second time – the first time, she missed the significance of where the cat was.)
What makes this interesting is that Sugar had previously completely ignored mirrors. For the first fifteen years of her life, she not only failed to recognize herself in a mirror (which is normal for cats) she never even seemed to realize there was another cat, or anything interesting at all, in mirrors. I still don’t think she’s recognizing herself, but it seems impossible now that she’s not at least noticing there’s another cat there. At her age this is rather as though a human octagenarian had sprouted a previously unexpected talent.
But on one level this is not entirely surprising. Parrots in the wild don’t talk, and the probability that a pet parrot will start doing so is well correlated with age. Other domesticated near-sophonts (chimps; corvids; my swordmaster’s Malamute dogs, who have recognizable call-by-name vocalizations for their humans) can develop communication behaviors far more elaborate than their wild kin.
We produce uplift in our pets. We actually operant-condition them towards full sentience! (I am not the first to notice this. The primatologist Frans de Waal has written about this idea.)
I can’t help but suspect that Sugar has retained into old age the kind of neurological plasticity required to spring a new capability on us like this precisely because of her long interaction with us. Our human behavior towards her is to reflexively ascribe humanlike mental states to her; that is, we can not do this when we’re thinking about it, but we will tend to anthropomorphize when we’re not.
The flip side of this is that, in effect, Sugar has had fifteen years of incentive to model humanlike mental states. And, by damn, she’s trying hard. I wonder if she’ll pass the mirror test of self-awareness before she dies?
If that happens, I’ll be surprised…but not nearly as surprised as I would have been six months ago.