Tag: feline intelligence

Can Cats Talk Like Humans, Or Is This Viral Video A Hoax?

A new, internet-breaking viral video appears to capture a cat speaking English, prompting a wave of speculation about whether cats are basically furry parrots when it comes to talent for mimicry.

The TikTok clip features a voice saying “Hello” and “Are you coming?” followed by an amused narrator turning the camera on his cat and incredulously asking “What did you just say?”

The video’s viral success has led to a net-wide conversation about animal cognition, and whether cats in particular understand far more than they let on.

“And this is a proof that animals can talk,” one TikTok user commented, summing up much of the online reaction to the clip.

It should be noted the handful of times cats have been recorded producing vaguely human-sounding speech, the sounds were stress vocalizations from terrified or anxious cats.

That’s what’s happening in the famous “Oh long Johnson, oh don piano!” video, in which a stressed out tuxedo vocalizes a few phrases before proceeding with more gibberish. To people who aren’t familiar with cats the video may seem funny, but those of us who care for the little tigers can recognize the signs of extreme agitation.

Here’s the “Oh long Johnson” video:

And here’s the new “Hello!”/“Are you coming?” video:

The viral TikTok video is a whole different ballgame: The words are well-formed, the sound is clear, and the phrase makes sense.

Unfortunately, it’s not real.

First I’ll point out the obvious: The cat is off-camera when it “speaks” because painstakingly editing video to make its mouth move in sync is a much more difficult task than dubbing in a vocal file.

Secondly, a careful listening with headphones makes it clear the “Hello” and “Are you coming?” are not from the same source as the meow, and the directional mix isn’t right. The sound should be distorted and should be directional if it’s coming from a cat in the next room, to the right of the person recording the scene on a smartphone.

This was an audio cut and paste job without much attention paid to detail. The video’s creator didn’t bother panning the clip.

But perhaps most damning of all, the sound looks wrong. I isolated clips of the cat “speaking” in a wave editor — an old copy of the ultra-reliable Cool Edit Pro — and compared them to various samples of cat meows pulled from the Internet and sampled from Buddy himself.

When visualized in an audio editor, “the waveform of speech is complex and variable, reflecting the variety of vowels and consonants that are used and the dynamic nature of speech articulation.”

In other words, you can see the stops and starts of human speech and the articulations of different sounds reflected in how the audio appears visually. This is because we have fine motor control over our vocal apparatus, something animals lack. (A 2016 Princeton study determined macaques, for example, have the necessary vocal anatomy to mimic human speech, but they don’t have the “brain circuitry” to form the precise articulations.)

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Wave forms of human vocalizations. Source: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review/Springer

Cat vocalizations, on the other hand, lack those markers. Additionally, at higher resolutions you can see patterns indicative of rhythmic sounds in samples of cat vocalizations, not unlike isolated drum tracks in a studio recording.

This is because feline meows often have embedded purrs, and trills are naturally quantized. They’re rhythmic sounds. If you’ve ever had a purring cat laying on your chest, this will be familiar to you: You can hear the percussive sound, which persists while the cat is exhaling and inhaling.

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A domestic cat’s meow in waveform. Notice the lack of transients, pauses and variation, which would be indicative of human speech patterns.

Solicitation purrs and even basic meows have similar qualities. It’s a well-known fact that cats communicate with each other via body language — tail, eyes, ears, posture — and scent. Adult cats rarely vocalize to each other, so when they meow to us it’s because they recognize that we don’t “speak” tail or whisker, and they’re trying to communicate with us in a form we understand.

But cats are like macaques — they do not possess the brain circuitry to form the precise articulations necessary for human speech.

As primates, macaques have similarly-formed mouths, tongues, teeth and lips. Cats do not, which presents another set of problems when imagining them mimicking human speech. Think of “t” sounds, both the hard t and the soft “th” — they require us to rest our tongues against our upper front teeth or the roof of our mouths.

Cats don’t have substantial front teeth. They’re more like little shredders.

Likewise, to speak the phrase “Are you coming?” requires fine motor control to form the hard “c” sound. It involves precise control of air flow from the throat to the mouth and subtle placement of the tongue

Although the idea of talking pets may be appealing to generations that grew up on Disney movies and other media featuring anthropomorphized animals, the truth is they do talk to us in their own ways. The least we can do, as the supposedly more intelligent species, is to meet them halfway.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Are Cats Self-Aware After All?

The mirror test has been the de facto gauge of animal self-awareness since it was invented in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr., mostly because no one’s figured out a better way to determine if animals understand who they are.

The procedure is simple: When the animal is asleep or sedated researchers will add a smudge of red paint, a sticker or some other visible mark on the animal’s face. Then they place a mirror nearby.

If the animal wakes up, looks in the mirror and tries to probe or wipe away the new mark, it passes the self-awareness test. It means the animal understands the image in the mirror is a reflection of itself and not another animal, according to researchers.

The list of animals who have passed the self-awareness test is quite short: It includes great apes like orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees, as well as elephants, dolphins, orcas and crows.

Cats, who are notoriously difficult to work with in controlled studies, have never passed the mirror test. Dubbed “the world’s most uncooperative research subject,” cats are a challenge even for the most seasoned animal cognition experts.

“I can assure you it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” one scientist told Slate magazine. “It’s incredible.”

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It’s not clear if cats don’t recognize themselves or simply can’t be bothered. Indeed, one of the primary criticisms of the mirror test is that, like most measures of animal cognition, it employs a human perspective to gauge non-human intelligence. It assumes that animals use vision as their primary source of information, as humans do, and it assumes that animals will be immediately driven to touch or remove an unfamiliar mark.

Buddy has a long and tumultuous history with mirrors. As a tiny kitten he once pulled down a thick, heavy wood-framed mirror from a wall, smashing the glass on impact. Thankfully he avoided injury.

As he got older, Buddy graduated to his boxing phase: He’d stand in front of a mirror, put his weight on his back legs and “box” the Buddy in the mirror with a series of quick jabs. Even from another room I knew instantly when he was boxing his reflection thanks to his high-pitched trills and the THWAP-THWAP-THWAP!! of his little paws against the glass.

The boxing phase eventually gave way to the narcissism phase, when Buddy would park himself in front of the mirror and stare at his reflection, occasionally raising a paw to the glass or waving at himself.

Was this evidence of self-awareness? Did little Bud now realize he was staring at his own reflection? After all, even humans don’t pass the mirror test until they’re two years old, so it’s entirely possible a cat can come to understand what it’s seeing in the mirror just like kids can.

So ripped.
So ripped.

Then one day I was shaving with the bathroom door open when Buddy padded up behind me and meowed to get my attention. Instead of turning to face him, I kept shaving, locked eyes with him in the mirror and gave him a slow-blink of recognition. He blinked back.

Finally, yesterday the roles were reversed: Buddy was sitting in front of the mirror while I was reading a few feet away.

“Hi, Bud!” I said, putting my tablet down.

Buddy, still staring into the mirror, met my gaze and blinked at me. Then in a moment that might have been confusion or dawning comprehension, he turned from the mirror-me to the real me, then turned back to the mirror. He blinked at me again.

Is that evidence of self-awareness? If Buddy still thought that the images in the mirror were different animals, wouldn’t he freak out upon realizing there are now two Big Buddies? Or would he meow with joy at the serendipitous development of a second Big Buddy to do his bidding?

He didn’t do any of those things. He took it in stride and reacted to mirror-me the same way he always reacts to regular me.

Skeptics will say this little anecdote proves nothing. It is, after all, just an anecdote, and it’s a far cry from a well-designed, controlled study with a few dozen feline participants.

That’s all true. But maybe we’re onto something here. Maybe instead of the traditional mirror test, which cats don’t seem to be interested in, a new mirror test could gauge how cats react to their owners as seen in a mirror.

Cats are never satisfied with doing things the “normal” way. Why should the mirror test be any different?

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No, A Study Did Not Conclude Dogs Are Smarter Than Cats

“Study finds dogs are more than twice as smart as cats,” the clickbait headline reads:

A study gives dog owners solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.

A study led by Vanderbilt University counted for the first time the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brains of cats and dogs and found that dogs have more than twice as many neurons as cats.

The research found that dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million. These neurons are the brain cells associated with thinking, planning and complex behavior, which are all considered hallmarks of intelligence.
That’s from a story published Aug. 30 on Local12.com, the website of a Cincinatti-area news station.
So what’s wrong with the story?
  • It’s dishonest: The study was conducted in 2017, but the Local12 story presents it as news in August of 2019.
  • It quotes the study’s lead author, giving the impression a reporter from Local12 spoke to her. That did not happen. The quotes were copied and pasted from the press release that originally announced the study two years ago.
  • It misinterprets the study’s results: Neither neuron count nor brain size — relative or absolute — are reliable indicators of intelligence.
This is what passes for news in 2019: Old, recycled content presented as new information, slapped together by a web producer who didn’t bother to read more than the study’s abstract.
It’s all about traffic and designing pieces of content ready-made for Facebook feeds.
But what about the central claim, that the number of neurons in an animal’s brain correlates to intelligence?
If that were true, we’d be living on a planet dominated not by humans, but by elephants: Earth’s largest terrestrial animal has some 260 billion neurons compared to an average of 100 billion for humans.
Elephants
“Hear that, son? We have more neurons than humans!”
Research suggests the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex, as opposed to the entire brain, may be a better indicator of intelligence. Indeed, that’s what the study focuses on. The cerebral cortex is associated with higher cognitive functions. As you’d expect, humans have unusually high neuron counts in that region of the brain.
But by that measurement, humans aren’t at the top either.
If neuron density in the cerebral cortex was the primary indicator of intelligence, the long-finned pilot whale would reign supreme, and other types of whales and dolphins would rival humans.
Not only do pilot whales have twice as many cortical neurons as humans, their brains have much more surface area, which scientists once believed corresponded to intelligence.
Pilot Whales
“Actually we are the Earth’s smartest creatures according to cortical neuron count. Suck it!”
So if we’re keeping score, intelligence is not determined by:
  • The number of neurons in the brain
  • The number of neurons in the cerebral cortex
  • Brain size
  • Brain size relative to body mass
  • Brain surface area
  • Brain “folds”
At one time or another, each of those things was thought of as the way to measure smarts. So if none of those things are true markers of intelligence, what is?
That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t have an answer, which is why scientists conduct this kind of research in the first place.
Contrary to what the article claims, cortical neuron count does not provide “solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.”
But that doesn’t make for a clickable, shareable headline, does it?
In truth, we can’t even define what “more intelligent” really means because each species sees the world differently, and has different priorities to enable it to survive and thrive.
When we measure intelligence, we measure it on a human scale, according to how we humans see the world. That’s hardly an impartial way of evaluating the intelligence of animals with much different needs and ways of seeing the world, and it doesn’t yield many useful insights.
Keeping that in mind is particularly important when it comes to studying cats, who have their own agendas and priorities. Dogs are eager to please and obedient. Cats only listen when it suits them.
That doesn’t mean one is smarter than the other, it simply means they’re different