What We can Learn from Cats

Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

Cats are mammals. So are humans.

Cats socialize. So are humans.

For a peaceful environment (e.g. a play room) to be violent, we just need to have one cat to start it all. No, there’s no evil cats (neither are humans). According to my observation, the cats who start it are the fearful ones. As a new cat to the environment, such a cat usually started as showing reluctance to mingle with other cats.

Cat caretakers know how to interact with a fearful cat. Over time the fearful cats become very sweet around humans, but they still get aggressive as soon as multiple number of cats are around.

Such aggression is contagious. Some cats are pretty immune to that, because they’re either very mature, very lazy, or very weak. The mature ones watch nonchalantly from a distance. The lazy ones can’t be bothered and prefer to sleep. The weak ones hide.

The rest of the cats in the environment may follow the aggressive behavior and create a new pattern of interactions. It goes like this:

  • If there’s a cat near you, paw it.
  • If the cat doesn’t respond, treat that like a prey-chasing game.
  • When you’re near another cat, growl to prevent it from pawing you.

In a group of fewer than ten cats, we might have only one fearful cat and in two weeks we can have three aggressive or constantly growling cats. I don’t always see an aggressive cat within a new group of cats, but when there is one, such a cat usually knows which ones are not to be bothered. However, when it comes to the second or third aggressive ones, they don’t avoid certain cats. They only copy the pawing and growling, as if it’s a social norm a.k.a. the rules you’re supposed to go by in society.

The cat caretakers usually try to separate the aggressive cats from interacting with other cats and with each other. Such cats are allowed to interact only with one human to slowly calm them down. Let’s see how the brain difference between humans and cats makes the behavior different.

Paul MacLean’s theory of Triune Brain (image source unknown): 1st: brain stem (shared with birds and reptilians), 2nd: limbic system (shared with mammals), 3rd: neocortex (shared with primates, as other mammals have it much smaller)

Mammals like cats, dogs, horses have a part of the brain called Limbic System, whose function supports — among others — the territoriality of cats. They also have Neocortex of much smaller size than humans, which allows them to perform certain cognitive functions.

I’m just an amateur cat observer, far from being formally trained as an animal behaviorist. My conclusion is simple:

  1. All mammals are the same. Our subconscious fear is learned through a hypnosis process (e.g. as a child), our repetitive conduct (habit), or traumatic events.
  2. The degree of each mammal’s sensitivity to traumatic events differ. In animals we call it temperament, so is in humans but more often it’s called personality. This difference explains our different reactions toward traumatic events. In cats, we classify three behavior types e.g. attack, run away, hide. Like in humans we can also discover complex temperaments, e.g. a curious cat who is also nervous and sweet and sociable.
  3. The subconscious fear formed after the traumatic events is usually visible through a fight-or-flight response in social situations. However, the higher cognitive function in humans makes it less straightforward to recognize this in humans than in cats.

If humans don’t have the higher cognitive function such as self-reflection, discrimination of appropriate behavior, and problem resolution, what would this world be? It would look like any groups of cats.

Yet this world does look like one!

We humans haven’t done enough of utilizing our brain to make our world develop beyond a cat colony. No matter how many poems have been recited, songs have been performed, books have been written, stories have been shared throughout history, we’re still the same.

It just takes a small group of humans to introduce aggressive behavior. It takes less than one generation to see the aggressive behaviors spreading in larger groups. It takes one to two generations to see certain behaviors becoming the social norm.

Just like in cats, aggression in humans also start from fear. We can do something, can’t we? Love before fear. It reminds me of what I learned from Buddhist monks, although the monks have been through years of disciplined practice of meditation. How about we start very small?

Start by sharing a safe environment with each other. Instead of focusing on how you feel unsafe around others, make people feel safe around you. We can do it because we’re not cats. Thank you.

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