What Simple Memory Tests Tells Us About Feline Intelligence

They’re certainly cunning, but are cats smart? Most people agree that cats are crafty and sly, but recent research shows that feline intelligence goes much deeper than mere cunning.  

Does Your Cat Remember Her Dinner?

The cats versus dogs debate is likely to rage on for all eternity, but when it comes to memory, we tend to ask more of dogs. Cat parents don’t always expect their felines to perform tricks on command or remember complex tasks like providing navigation assistance for visually-impaired handlers. However, just because cats’ memory skills aren’t put to the test, it doesn’t mean those skills don’t exist!   Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University determined that cats do indeed have the cognitive ability to form complex, event-based memories just like humans. The study, which centered on a group of 49 feline participants in 2014, set out to determine whether domestic cats “retrieve and utilize incidentally encoded ‘where’ and ‘what + where’ information.” In other words, the scientists wanted to know whether cats form specific memories related to specific events.   Study participants were either sourced from the ever-popular Japanese cat cafes or were pet house cats. And, the studies were actually conducted in the cats’ own living spaces. This helped the cats feel more at ease throughout the entirety of the study. The researchers then used an item to test their memory with something all pets love – food! They used dishes of food to determine whether the cats would remember which dishes they had been fed from 15 minutes earlier.     Now on to the results! By using a simple arrangement of empty or full food dishes, the researchers concluded that cats do indeed store and recall “what + where” memories. According to the research team behind the experiment, the results indicate that cats have a degree of consciousness around their actions that is similar to our own human consciousness.  

Understanding Episodic Memory

Cat parents probably aren’t surprised to learn that a group of 49 kitties was quick to remember anything related to food. If a cat recognizes her feeding bowl, she is likely to perk up when she sees it and maybe even come running when she hears the sound it makes when placed on the counter.   Now let’s dive into the details! From a scientific perspective, however, there’s a difference between responding to a stimulus (such as the sight of her dinner bowl) and remembering that a specific incident occurred. Most animals can be trained to respond to a sensory stimulus related to food, but this study focused on a different idea. The memories explored in this study related to episodic memory, a class of memories dealing with an animal’s personal experiences. A person remembering where he was the last time he had his car keys is an example of retrieving a stored episodic memory. This study broke new ground in establishing the idea that domestic cats can act on episodic memories like humans do.   Researcher Saho Takagi said this kind of memory retrieval is commonly associated with the “introspective function of the mind.” Takagi admits she finds it amusing to consider that cats “may enjoy actively recalling memories of their experiences like humans,” implying that her research could be extrapolated into the idea that cats think wistfully of the good old days. The research doesn’t prove that, but when it comes to knowing what cats are thinking, these results may be the closest to a reliable clue. Now we know that cats may be a bit nostalgic, too!     Cat parents may not be scientists, but they certainly enjoy speculating about their kitty companions’ thoughts. Now that it’s been proven they can remember specific events from their pasts, it will be even more fun to imagine what all those cat daydreams are about.

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