Wait, Do Cats REALLY Understand Physics?

That's what a new study claims, but some cat experts are skeptical.
Does this cat even have bad eyesight, or she just trying to look hip?
Does this cat even have bad eyesight, or she just trying to look hip?
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

You’ve likely always suspected your cat is pretty smart.

So when headlines this week proclaimed that a new study out of Japan’s Kyoto University found cats understand physics, you were probably pretty psyched. Maybe you even shared the news with friends who doubt your cat’s mental prowess.

But before you rename your cat Isaac Mewton (unless that’s already your cat’s name, in which case you’re awesome), you may want to take a step back and examine the study a little more closely. Researchers didn’t exactly find that cats understand quantum mechanics.

What they did conclude was that cats appear to understand basic physical laws, since they seemed to be surprised when objects appear to defy those laws. The experiment involved observing the reactions of 30 cats — eight house cats and 22 cats that reside in cat cafes — to a series of four scenarios involving a container with an object inside that could rattle around. The study was published Tuesday in the journal Animal Cognition.

Half the time, researchers manipulated the container and the object inside it so they obeyed the basic laws of physics. That means they shook the cup so that the object rattled around, then turned it over and the object fell out. Or, they shook the container with no sound, then turned it over and nothing came out.

The other half of the time, researchers made the object and container appear to defy laws of basic physics. They shook the container with the object rattling around, then turned it over and nothing came out. Or, they shook the container with no sound, then when they turned it over, the object fell out. (They were able to accomplish this using magnets and switches that controlled compartments within the cup.)

Researchers randomized the order in which each cat encountered these conditions, so the cats weren’t just losing interest toward the end of the series of trials. They also tested the cats in familiar conditions — either at their homes or in the cat cafe where the lived, meaning the cats’ behavior wouldn’t be altered by freaking out about a new environment.

What they found was the cats spent more time staring at the container during the weird scenarios than they did during the ones that supposedly made sense. The researchers interpreted this as meaning the cats were confused by the nonsensical scenarios.

In other words, they believe the cats inferred whether there was an object in the cup based on the presence of sound. If that object didn't fall out when it should have, or vice versa, the cat ended up staring at the container for a longer period of time.

“Our study is the first demonstration that cats seem to grasp the laws of physics,” lead author Soho Takagi told The Washington Post. And the authors wrote in their paper that the study "may be viewed as evidence for cats’ having a rudimentary understanding of gravity."

But not everyone is so convinced. Certified cat behavior consultant Mikel Delgado noted that the researchers measured attention time by looking at video frames of the cats, at a rate of 30 frames per second.

“I am guessing that they chose this measure instead of time because the effect is actually very small,” Delgado said in an email. “If you look at the time they spent looking at the different conditions, we are talking about a difference in looking time of less than 2 seconds.”

She also noted there could be alternate explanations for why cats looked at certain scenarios more than others. For instance, cats spent the least amount of time looking at the no object/no sound trial, but that could have just been because it was boring.

“The fact that cats didn't look much when there was no object or sound should not be shocking,” she said.

That doesn't mean cats necessarily don’t have any grasp of physical laws.

“Of course, trial and error learning would teach any animal that certain activities lead to a certain outcome,” Delgado said. In other words, obviously a cat would be surprised if he jumped off the counter and started floating around. But Delgado's not convinced this study in particular proved anything — a sentiment shared by anthrozoology professor John Bradshaw, who told the Washington Post that the idea is “entirely plausible” but he didn’t feel the study offered “conclusive evidence.”

That said, whether or not the study definitively "proved" anything about how cats perceive physical laws, it suggests that more investigation in that area -- which the study authors note is somewhat lacking in research -- might be worthwhile.

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