Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cat Cognition Capers: Knocking Stuff Over Edition

(A sort-of followup to Cats, Dogs, Strings, and Causality and A Small, Informal Cat Cognition Experiment)

Today I tried looking up studies and/or scholarly articles on the phenomenon of Cats Knocking Things Over, but didn't come up with any interesting results. The majority of writing on this subject seems to be in the context of advice on "cat behavior problems", e.g., Dealing With Cats That Knock Things Down, How can I get my cat to stop knocking stuff over?, etc.

(Of course, if anyone has any links to papers on this subject please feel free to share!)

But anyway. It occurred to me, upon seeing Shadow (one of three ex-feral littermates sharing my home) push a container of cat treats off my desk for the nth time earlier today, that (if it was indeed being done deliberately) such an action might represent a fairly well-developed understanding of certain physical principles. I.e., the fact that if one cannot readily access the contents of a treat-containing object, one might be able to gain access via utilizing the tendency of objects to fall over when pushed or similarly manipulated.

(Full disclosure: as a person on the autistic spectrum who is also interested in neuroscience and relevant cognitive research, I must admit it tends to catch my attention whenever I encounter what to me looks like an interesting ability or trait, in any species, being largely written off as a "behavior problem". Often it seems to me something is being missed when this occurs, so I'm driven to investigate in situations like this!)

Certainly the standard "I am not a professional researcher, this was all done completely informally, my home is not a laboratory, etc." disclaimer must be applied to these results. Moreover, I am well aware that interpretation is not data (and vice versa), and in truth the only thing that can be said for sure is that at least one of my cats pretty consistently knocks over objects when is is conceivable that he has reason to believe these objects could contain treats.

The following three videos appear in chronological order. All were filmed on 5 September 2010, in the afternoon, within the space of maybe twenty minutes.

In this first video ("Cats and Gravity I"), Shadow is shown pushing a sealed container of treats off my desk.

He had precedent for doing this, as this particular container is the usual one I put the kitties' daily allotment of treats in. Once, about a week ago, I left the lid part-way off, to see what he would do (seeing as he'd definitely be able to smell the treats within). And in that case he proceeded to nudge the container around with his nose until it fell off the table, scattering treats hither and thither, much to his and his siblings' delight.

Now, I am fairly certain that this first knockdown was an accident. However, since then, Shadow has pushed the treat container off multiple other surfaces (besides the coffee table), on multiple separate occasions. "Cats and Gravity I", then, seems like it could very well represent Shadow's having learned that "if I push this container, sometimes treats fall out!" I don't know that anyone in the cognitive research field actually believes this level of reasoning is beyond the domestic feline (I suspect not) but in any event, it makes for a good "baseline" data point in terms of the variables I am interested in observing.

In this next video ("Cats and Gravity II"), we have an interesting situation involving three cats. You may remember Coraline and Brodie from all those string and zip-tie trials I ran as a rough check of what experimental design conditions might be improved so that cats could better demonstrate their actual cognitive capacities in string-pulling tasks. In the case of that set of puzzles, Cora and Brodie were the only participating felines; Shadow preferred to simply watch.

However, in "Cats and Gravity II", you will observe that Brodie "experiments" with the treat-containing bottle but doesn't succeed in getting anything out of it, whereas Shadow makes one single decisive swipe and sends the thing crashing down. Note that this bottle is different from the treat container in the first video, but it is one that I've put treats in several times prior to this, so the cats would definitely be familiar with it.

(Coraline, meanwhile, is ignoring the whole business and seems more excited about the fact that I've gotten up from my computer chair, giving her an opening to steal it. To me this mainly suggests that at different points in time, different cats may have very different priorities!)

And then we come to "Cats and Gravity III". The outcome of this scenario completely caught me off guard (you may even be able to hear me exclaim "HOLY CRAP!" at one point). In this case I took a treat container that would be new to all the cats (another empty vitamin bottle, this time a dark purple one slightly larger than the white one used in "Cats and Gravity II"). I let them watch me putting treats into it, and then placed this bottle on top of a small end table in the living room (a different surface in a different part of the house than my desk, to control for position habit).

In this case, the video shows that initially none of the cats really showed interest in the new treat bottle when I first placed it on the end table. However, after I went over and shook it a bit, Shadow went over to the table, put his front paws on the top surface, and then proceeded to lift the bottle up with his mouth and throw it down onto the floor. (That's where I exclaimed "HOLY CRAP!", by the way.)

So...what to make of this?

Subjectively speaking (yes, I'm about to offer an interpretation), it looked to me like Shadow spontaneously came up with a really creative way of getting the treats he knew were inside the purple bottle. Which would suggest that he's learned to generalize beyond "if I paw at this maybe it will fall and treats will come out" and now understands that it is not the mechanical motion of pawing or nosing that's important, but rather, the falling of the bottle itself, if one's goal is to get the treats out of the bottle. This, to me, seems pretty significant, and again I'm curious to know if there's any literature out there saying one thing or another about this type of cognition in felines.

However, this was of course a tiny sample set. And I did not do this series of "mini-trials" in response to another study I'd be able to cite and/or comment on -- like I said at the beginning, I couldn't find any studies about cats knocking stuff over. No peer-reviewed references = not "ResearchBlogging". Plus, for all I know, cats' understanding of gravitational cause-and-effect is already well documented and known and I just fail at searching for this documentation.

That said, at the very least, I think anyone who really wants to study cats' understanding of cause-and-effect as it pertains to objects in a broader sense would do well to try out a variety of different scenarios involving different types of objects, and requiring different types of attentiveness and planning on the cats' part.

I find it terribly problematic (and this goes back to my discussion of the string experiments again) when a single particular test is taken (whether by the study authors, the media, or both) as meaning something globally significant about a given population's abilities or lack thereof. In the absence of a single task (or task type) with huge amounts of existing data backing up its ability to test "general" cognitive ability in a given domain, multiple tasks of varying attributes would seem to me required for appropriate levels of rigor.

Also, I have to say that another reason I wanted to post these videos is because now more than ever I am beginning to think it is very important to have as much of an experiment on record (for multiple parties to view and evaluate) as possible. Even though I (hopefully) disclaimered the heck out of my string experiments, I still would rather do things as close to "right" as possible for a layperson -- just because I'm not a real researcher doesn't mean I can't practice holding my informal stuff to higher standards.

Finally, I would just like to say that I would be extremely interested to get people's comments on what it looks like is actually happening in the videos above. As in, if you think Shadow is doing what he's doing deliberately, what aspects of his actions lead you to think that? I'm curious about this because I see my cats doing all sorts of things all the time, some of which (to me) look "deliberate", whereas other things they do look thoroughly "accidental". Only I haven't come up with a good way to describe what "deliberateness" looks like in quantitative terms.

I suspect that in general this sort of issue comes up a lot in animal cognition research, which has me curious as to whether there even exists any kind of objective way to measure something so "internal". Behaviorism (in my opinion) fails miserably to account for everything that could potentially be important (for one thing it often seems to completely fail to account for, say, different sensory and perceptual modalities on the part of the researcher vs. subject), and much of what I hear from "evolutionary psychology" sounds like it's been pulled straight from someone's nether orifice, to put it politely. So I'd be really intrigued to know what other tools or paradigms may currently be out there that might be more promising.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Very interesting. I once posted the question on my blog, Why do cats love to knock little objects off of big objects? There were a lot of speculations, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that this represents knocking bird eggs out of nests to break on the ground so the inside can be eaten.

Anne Corwin said...

CPP: Hmm, I'd be curious to read the speculations in response to your post, if it still exists. I'll see if I can find it. The "knocking eggs out of nests" thing makes sense, but personally my "theory" is that cats have evolved with a kind of generalized predilection for experimenting with physical objects.

One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing can be seen in this video of a cat repeatedly flushing a toilet. I'm interpreting again here but it looks to me like the cat has figured out a really interesting cause-and-effect relationship and is repeating the flushing because it's just so danged fascinating to see the water swirl around. And it's also important to remember that cats are opportunistic predators, meaning it makes heaps of sense for them to experiment with parts of their environment from multiple angles.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Yeah, I like your theory that this is probably a more general predilection to fucke with shitte and see what happens. Here is the post:

fledchen said...

I'm not a cat person, but I have had the pleasure of sharing my life with birds (6 budgerigars and 2 zebra finches) over the past 20 years. It saddens me that so many of the behavioral traits that I treasure in my avian companions get labeled "problem behaviors" simply because they are inconvenient for many modern humans. For example, budgies love flinging objects off of tables, shelves, etc. In some cases this seems to be for the pure joy of manipulating large objects with their beaks. Sometimes it appears to be curiosity/foraging behavior. Other times it's an invitation to play Parrot Fetch (bird flings object, human retrieves, repeat until one or both parties get bored).

Anne Corwin said...

Fledchen: Oh, interesting! I've never lived with birds in the house but I've definitely seen some very intriguing avian antics going on in the yard, etc. I didn't know about budgerigars throwing things off shelves but that is kind of awesome. :D

You wrote: It saddens me that so many of the behavioral traits that I treasure in my avian companions get labeled "problem behaviors" simply because they are inconvenient for many modern humans.

Oh yeah, that is a big peeve of mine as well (whether we're talking about birds or cats or even atypical humans). Some people seem to be saying on the one hand that a given animal "doesn't really do anything interesting" but on the other hand, all kinds of things the animal IS doing are written off as merely "problems".

And while yeah, sometimes certain actions are problematic enough for the human to merit some kind of solution, I think that whenever any of us chooses to share a home with a member of another species, we need to make room for them to BE a member of that species. Which might mean (in the case of budgies) avoiding putting breakable throwable objects within reach of the birds, and in the case of cats, not storing fine china on shelves they can physically access. And so on.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I was very interested in the fact that in the second video, Budgie moved the container from the edge of desk and back, but never actually pushed it over the edge. Then Shadow came over and made gravity work. As I was watching, I kept feeling that some kind of communication was going on between Budgie and Shadow, as though Budgie were kind of toying with the idea of pushing the container off the desk, and Shadow got impatient and finished the job. I wondered whether Budgie had somewhere gotten the message that humans don't like things getting knocked off desks, and decided not to push the limits, while Shadow either never got the message or just doesn't care, and decided to just go for the treats. Sometimes human siblings pick off this kind of social/psychic territory: I was the cooperative child, while my younger brother was the boundary pusher. I wonder whether the same kind of thing happens to domesticated animals.

In the third video, I also got the feeling that the cats were looking at you and wondering "What does she want from us now?" I don't know how you'd prove whether the cats knew they were subjects of an experiment, or how to account for the impact of that consciousness on their actions, but it's an interesting question to me.

Anne Corwin said...

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg: I presume you meant Brodie when you wrote Budgie? (I don't have any cats named Budgie, but I can see how you might have been thrown off by the comments Fledchen and I made prior to yours, in which we referred to budgies in the avian sense).

That aside, you've made some intriguing observations. Generally speaking, Brodie is a lot more cautious and detail-oriented than Shadow is. Shadow prefers to wield his will like a blunt instrument. :P You seem to have picked up on that just from these videos, which is very cool.

I doubt Brodie was worried about getting in trouble, though, as I don't yell at the cats or scold them when they knock things down (my home is pretty well cat-proofed, so there's not much for them to knock over that would actually lead to problems if they did). More likely he was just "experimenting", in the sense of testing out how close he could push the bottle to the edge of the desk without it falling. Or something along those lines.

As for the third video...I suppose it's possible that the cats were wondering what I wanted them to do, but I would guess it more probable that they were wondering if I was going to do something interesting or entertaining on their behalf. (I often do things like set up boxes or arrangements of toys for them to figure out and play with, and they usually stare at me when I'm doing that!)

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Oh, yes, I did mean Brodie. Sorry!

I think you're probably right about Brodie experimenting, trying out different things. Our cat Dakota figured out how to open her cage at the shelter and how to open the attic door in our house. She seems quite attuned to the details of how things work, and clearly (to me, anyway) understands cause and effect.

She's also extremely attuned to human expression and emotion, far more than any other cat I've ever met. She walks quite comfortably into any room except my loft, which she seems to understand is my "private space," and she'll stand at the doorway meowing until I invite her in. I've never shooed her out, so how she knows that my loft is different from other space in the house is intriguing to me. I'm not sure there's an experiment that would answer that. :-)

dinah said...

A couple of years ago I watched a crow with a discarded crisp (chip) packet. First he tried to stick his head in it but it wouldn't open; then he picked it up in his beak at the sealed end and shook it. He at once ate all the crumbs that fell out, then walked back and forth across its surface as it lay flat on the ground and picked it up (without hesitation by the sealed end) and shook it again, apparently to good effect as he pecked around on the ground some more before flying off.

G-nome said...

Looks to me like their curiosity was initially sparked by the novel sound of rattling in the bottle, and you also. But then it was firmly reinforced with the smell of the food that was present in the room (and on the bottle) at the same time everything else was happening. A neat observation was made by 'justsomeguy' in a previous entry regarding the effect of the sense of smell on a mind (being that it is most memorable of all senses, or something like that, but anyway let's say it's so for the sake of discussion). And in being more memorable, it stands to reason that their attention was effectively captured by the smell, regardless of how their curiousity was aroused. At this point, all sorts of neat stuff was happening in their minds on all levels of consciousness. For instance, as they were processing what was with the bottle, they were also looking at you, yawning (as if they weren't), and communicating subtly amongst themselves. Here's a cool site with relevant trivia:

G-nome said...

oops, that was for the 2nd one

Amanda said...

fledchen: My friend has a Quaker parrot (here is the photo of the parrot) who also has this fascination with dropping objects. She has a huge collection of balls that she will fling around and then drop them off the top of her cage. I wonder if it's a general parrot thing, or whether it's because she's lived with budgies for a long time (she speaks budgie-speak more than she speaks Quaker-speak a lot of the time, so we assume she's had at least one good budgie friend in the past, unfortunately we don't know her past because she was abused and neglected and then confiscated from someone's house and then smuggled out of the state by a rescue group so they wouldn't kill her, and so on, so there's a lot of missing links).

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