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It's a truth universally acknowledged that cats are mischievous, but why do cats knock things over? (especially off of high surfaces & seemingly on purpose) Could there be more to it than instinct, skill, and enjoyment? Could it be that cats understand physics, specifically the laws of gravity?
According to a group of researchers in Japan, the answer is... maybe.
In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition in 2016, researcher Saho Takagi and her co-authors set up a test to determine whether cats could predict the presence and behavior of an unseen object based on the noise it made in a container. That is, they wanted to know if cats could recognize the relationship between a sound (the cause) and the appearance of an object (the effect).
The researchers enlisted 30 cats for the experiment, 22 of who lived in cat cafés. (The Independent gives a good overview of the history of this cuddly coffee shop craze, which is wildly popular in Japan.) In addition to a few volunteered pet cats, these animals were chosen because they typically are very social and comfortable with new humans.
For their experiment, Takagi and her colleagues created an opaque container with an electromagnet in the center. They placed three iron balls inside this container and, with the flip of a switch, could turn the electromagnet on and off, holding back or releasing the iron balls from the box.
The group performed four experiments with the cats and the container:
- The iron balls rattled around and then fell out of the container.
- The balls were silent and did not fall out.
- The balls rattled and did not fall out.
- The balls were silent and fell out.
The first two situations were considered "usual" circumstances, but the second two were considered anomalies. The researchers referred to these second two situations as the "expectancy violation procedure" because the cause didn't produce the expected effect.
What Takagi and her colleagues discovered is that the cats paid closer attention and gazed longer at the container when they heard a sound but no object appeared, or there wasn't a sound but the objects did appear (the anomalies). The authors interpreted their results as an indication that cats have a basic understanding of gravity.
The experiment conducted by Takagi and her team is not without its critics, as the Washington Post points out. One researcher, John Bradshaw at the University of Bristol, tells the Post he thinks that in this particular experiment, the cats could have been "simply paying attention to the sounds of rattling and falling balls." Bradshaw believes that our feline friends "have expectations" about what they see and hear, but he needs more evidence to be convinced that cats understand physics.
Pets in Purr-petual Motion
The evidence from the Japanese experiment isn't foolproof, especially given cats' proclivity for staring at things. However, it does open a door to the possibility of why cats knock things down. We might think cats are aware of gravitational pull — they seem to know the pencil they push off the desk will fall to the ground and not float in the air — but there's more work to be done.
What is known is that kitties will go to great lengths to get their pet parents' attention and causing trouble is one of them. But why do cats knock things down? Is it just that they know you'll stop looking at your laptop once the coffee cup hits the floor? Or do cats understand Newton's third law of gravitation: that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? Or, is it just plain fun to watch things hit the floor?
Cats are very intelligent creatures, and given their love for batting teetering glasses off of tabletops, it's not too far off to believe that cats understand physics. But until there's more research and evidence, it's safer to take note of where you place your glass of water and be sure it's not too tempting for your feline friend.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.