What it is like to be a cat

Thoughtful Cat

I feel the most like a cat when I wake up late on a weekend. The sunlight flows into the room in a soft white glow, the sheets are warm, and the only thing that I am experiencing in my conscious mind is the feeling of my body, the feeling of the world around me, and a sense of contentment. I roll over onto my side,  adjust the pillow so that my head can rest on it comfortably. I fidget slightly, adjusting my shoulder and the blanket so that everything is comfortable, and then I just lay in the sunlight with a smile on my face, feeling content.

What is interesting about my behavior is that I’ve seen almost exactly the same thing in cats. They will lay in the sunlight, roll over to their side, and doze.  As they change position, they will use their little paws to adjust the blanket or pillow underneath them: dab, dab, dab. Pat, pat, pat. Until somehow it is in the perfect position to lie on and feel comfortable. Wiggle the body, get into position, and then nap.

Dogs do it, too, of course. As do most mammals, I suspect. It is a common and widely stereotyped behavior. Nobody ever taught me to do it. Nobody ever said: “When you are laying in bed, this is how you use your hand to fluff the pillow and make it comfy to lie on.” To the best of my knowledge and memory, I didn’t copy it from anywhere either. It’s just something that you do. It seems obvious.

It actually has all of the qualities of a reflex, or an instinct. When you think of the words “instinct” or “reflex” you usually think of relatively simple stereotyped behaviors: looking toward the source of a loud sound, trying to grab onto something or correct your footing when you are about to fall.  Often we expect reflexes and instincts to be directly associated with some kind of urgent survival tendency: run away from danger, pay attention when things seem amiss.

But what about fluffing a pillow?  Dab, dab, dab. Pat, pat, pat. All kinds of animals do it. Nobody has to learn to do it. It is a widespread and stereotyped behavior that animals of many kinds engage in. Is it an instinct? Is it a reflex? Is it something that has been built in, somehow, on a very low level into our being? Is it controlled by our genes?

There are other complex behaviors that fit this same pattern, as well. Behaviors that you might never expect. You know that swagger that men famously get when they have won a sports game, finished a workout, or beaten an opponent in a physical competition?  (Women get it too, by the way, although to a lesser extent. Men tend to be more famous for the “douchebag swagger”.)  Well, chimps do it. Other primates do it. Even non-primate mammals do it.

Research has shown that it is probably related to testosterone levels in the body. Whenever a mammal wins in any kind of dominance competition, whether a fight or a sports game, free testosterone levels in the blood rise slightly. This causes changes in mood, and also in behavior. It seems to be directly related to walking around with erect posture, head held high, taking large and deliberate steps to make the body sway from side to side… the “douchebag swagger”.

Evolutionary psychologists have come up with all kinds of theories about why this may have come about, of course. A sign of dominance and intimidation, and so on. But to me that is less interesting than the implications for mind and cognition. Because if it is a reflex, if it is an inborn innate tendency, then it’s not something that we do by choice. It is not a product of “free will”.  In some very basic biological sense, it is an animal thing that is governed purely by biology and genes: like running away from a fire, or trying to catch yourself when you trip.

It’s easy to wrap our heads around the idea of simple behaviors being reflexes, and somehow “under” or outside of the realm of our conscious action. You might say: Yes, there are some things that my body does innately, but the rest of my behavior is governed by my consciousness, my personality, and my will.

But how can you tell which is which?

I go back to thinking about being a cat. There was no conscious, deliberate process by which I said to myself: “I am going to choose to fluff the pillow right now by patting it with my hand and making small adjustments until it’s comfortable.”  In much the same way, a dog probably doesn’t go through a conscious, deliberate process by which he says, “I am going to circle this mat three times before I lay down on it.”  These are complex behaviors, but they are not willed things. Not in the way that human beings normally like to think about “will” and “consciousness”, anyway: they are reflex things. They are animal things.

I’m certainly not saying that animals are not conscious or willful! Do not get me wrong. But I think that behaviors exist in a kind of continuum, or a range. One one hand you have behaviors like crying out when you are in pain: very obviously reflex, very obviously biological, very obviously not a products of willpower or choice. On the other hand you have behaviors like deciding what restaurant to go to for dinner: very obviously deliberate, deeply rooted in learned knowledge, and very clearly feeling like it involves willpower and choice.

When I am laying in bed and being a cat, I am occupying a space that is somewhere in between. This “in between” space is important to recognize, because it is more common than many people imagine. So much of our behavior, whether adjusting a pillow or swaggering and looking down on people after winning a game, both feels conscious but appears (in the purely empirical scientific sense) as though it might be completely biologically-driven. Which can make you wonder how much of the “feeling” of consciousness can be relied upon at all.


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