From Science Magazine:
Ready to pounce
by David Grimm
Science 10 May 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6440, pp. 522-525
After years of favoring dogs, researchers are finally probing the secrets of the feline mind.
Strange and noisy objects like a fan with streamers often frighten cats. But they can calm down by picking up on humans' emotional cues, as Kitty does with a smiling Kristyn Vitale.
"PHOTO: HOLLY ANDRES"
Carl the cat was born to beat the odds. Abandoned on the side of the road in a Rubbermaid container, the scrawny black kitten--with white paws, white chest, and a white, skunklike stripe down his nose--was rescued by Kristyn Vitale, a postdoc at Oregon State University here who just happens to study the feline mind. Now, Vitale hopes Carl will pull off another coup, by performing a feat of social smarts researchers once thought was impossible.
In a stark white laboratory room, Vitale sits against the back wall, flanked by two overturned cardboard bowls. An undergraduate research assistant kneels a couple of meters away, holding Carl firmly.
"Carl!" Vitale calls, and then points to one of the bowls. The assistant lets go.
Toddlers pass this test easily. They know that when we point at something, we're telling them to look at it--an insight into the intentions of others that will become essential as children learn to interact with people around them. Most other animals, including our closest living relative, chimpanzees, fail the experiment. But about 20 years ago, researchers discovered something surprising: Dogs pass the test with flying colors. The finding shook the scientific community and led to an explosion of studies into the canine mind.
Cats like Carl were supposed to be a contrast. Like dogs, cats have lived with us in close quarters for thousands of years. But unlike our canine pals, cats descend from antisocial ancestors, and humans have spent far less time aggressively molding them into companions. So researchers thought cats couldn't possibly share our brain waves the way dogs do.
Yet, as cats are apt to do, Carl defies the best-laid plans of Homo sapiens. He trots right over to the bowl Vitale is pointing at, passing the test as easily as his canine rivals. "Good boy!" Vitale coos.
Carl isn't alone. After years when scientists largely ignored social intelligence in cats, labs studying feline social cognition have popped up around the globe, and a small but growing number of studies is showing that cats match dogs in many tests of social smarts. The work could transform the widespread image of cats as aloof or untamed. It also may eventually offer insight into how domestication transformed wild animals into our best friends, and even hint at how the human mind itself changed over the course of evolution.
That is, if the cats themselves deign to participate.
CARL'S CANINE PREDECESSOR was a black Labrador retriever named Oreo. In the spring of 1996, Brian Hare, then an undergrad at Emory University in Atlanta, was studying how toddlers pass the pointing test. "I turned to my adviser," says Hare, now an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, "and said, 'I think my dog can do that.'"
In 1998, Hare and ádám Miklósi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, independently published studies showing dogs could understand human pointing. Until then, social cognition researchers had paid little attention to dogs, thinking their minds had been "corrupted" by thousands of years of domestication.
Hare's and Miklósi's finding sparked a canine cognition revolution (Science, 28 August 2009, p. 1062), helping confirm that domesticated animals such as dogs were worthy of study. More than a dozen labs around the world have since churned out hundreds of papers on the canine mind. Researchers have learned that dogs can recognize emotion in people's faces, understand components of human speech, and may even have a sense of fairness and ethics. Those abilities probably helped turn canines into loyal, trusted companions and enabled them to perform socially complex tasks, as varied as guiding the blind and serving with military units.
Few species understand what human pointing means, but Lyla aces the test. ["PHOTO: HOLLY ANDRES"]
As dogs nuzzled their way up the cognitive tree, however, cats were left clawing at the roots.