Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cat lover claims cat can read human minds

NY Times evolutionary science reporter Nicolas Wade writes:
If scientists are to be challenged on the nature of cats, firmer ground might be the question of whether cats can read human minds.

People have an ability, called “theory of mind” by psychologists, to infer what is going on in the minds of other people. Psychologists doubt whether any other species possess this ability, at least to the same degree. Baboons, for instance, are very intelligent primates yet seem to have only a weak theory of mind. A mother baboon may ford a crocodile-infested river, leaving her infant crying on the other side and being apparently unable to infer the reason for the infant’s distress.

But a cat of my acquaintance seems to be very adept at reading minds, at least those belonging to people. When he needs to be let back into the house, he jumps up onto the ledge outside the kitchen window, waiting for people to notice him and open the door. If ignored, he will grab the mesh of the storm window in his claws and rattle it impatiently to gain attention, having clearly read people’s disinclination to get up and open the door for him yet again.
This is so ridiculous that I cannot tell whether he is joking or not. Nevertheless, cat lovers and others say stuff like this all the time, so I am responding to it.

This is no evidence of mindreading at all. There is a much simpler explanation. The lean theory is that the cat has simply learned, by trial and error, that rattling the storm window opens the door. The cat may not be aware that humans even have anything to do with it.

We need some research on why humans subscribe to such mindreading theories.

1 comment:

Jon Abbott said...

This morning it seemed as if my cat read my mind. When I was laying in bed, and the cat was passed out, I imagined her meowing (I didn't move at all), and she immediately got up and came over to me. Then, about five minutes later, I imagined her meowing again, and she meowed! She hadn't meowed the whole time since waking up. There was no eye contact either time. I typically don't subscribe to the mind reading theory, but this seemed very odd to happen merely by chance.