Cats Are Adorable Physicists

Beneath that fluffy exterior lies a shrewd understanding of how the world works

Cat With Yarn
String theory—feline edition. Tommy Hemmert Olesen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

They may be fluffy and cute, but behind the eyes of your favorite feline friend lies something that’s far more than catnip and cuddles—a sharp brain for physics. As the BBC reports, the latest in cat research reveals that the adorable animals seem to have a basic grasp on both the laws of physics and the ins and outs of cause and effect.

According to a new study published in the journal Animal Cognition, cats seem to be able to predict the location of hiding prey using both their ears and an innate understanding of how the physical world works.

In what could be the most chaotically cute experiment, Japanese researchers taped 30 domestic cats reacting to a container that a team member shook. Some containers rattled; others did not. When the container was tipped over, sometimes an object fell out and sometimes it didn’t.

It turns out that the cats were remarkably savvy about what would happen when a container was tipped over. When an object did not drop out of the bottom of a rattling container, they looked at it for a longer period of time than they did when the container behaved as expected.

“Cats use a causal-logical understanding of noise or sounds to predict the appearance of invisible objects,” lead researcher Saho Takagi says in a press release. The researchers conclude that cats’ hunting style may have developed based on their common-sense abilities to infer where prey is using their hearing.

Scientists have delved into this idea with other endearing creatures: babies. Like cats, babies appear to engage in what’s called "preferential looking"—looking longer at things that are interesting or askew than things they perceive as normal.

When babies’ expectations are violated in experiments like the ones performed with the cats, they react much like their fuzzy friends. Psychologists have shown that babies apparently expect their world to comply with the laws of physics and cause and effect as early as two months of age.

Does the study mean that soon, cats will grasp the ins and outs of quantum mechanics and string theory? Maybe—if the string is a ball of yarn. Okay, so cats may not be the next physics faculty members at America’s most important research universities. But by demonstrating their common sense, they’ve shown that the divide between cats and humans may not be that great after all.

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