The Snapchat cat filter shows how little we know about cat cognition – The Verge

Posted: December 18, 2019 at 2:48 am


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Apologies to Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the most interesting cat content online right now is a Snapchat filter that lets humans try on a feline face. The resulting clips are adorable, confounding, and a great example of just how little we know about cat cognition.

In a video compilation making the rounds online, cats look at a phone screen that shows their owners with a cat face filter. The cats whip their heads around to look up at the human, and then back to the screen. It appears the cat recognizes that their owners face should be on the phone, but it is not, Kristyn Vitale, who studies cat behavior at Oregon State University, said in an email to The Verge.

However, its particularly challenging to figure out what this behavior says about cats because we know so little about cat cognition to begin with, says Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, an animal behavior researcher and director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College. In cats, its as elusive as cats general personalities can be, she says. Thats partly because they often dont cooperate well in research studies, making data hard to come by. When a researcher tried to test if cats understood what it meant if someone pointed at where food was hidden, for example, multiple subjects wandered off from the testing site.

The video hints at some interesting questions about cat cognitive awareness. It might be a sign the cat recognizes its owner, Vitale said. But it isnt a sign that cats pass the mirror test, despite what some people responding to the video seemed to think.

The mirror test is a key measure of self awareness for animal behavior researchers. It was designed in 1970 to figure out if an animal can recognize itself. When animals are introduced to a mirror, their first reaction is often an aggressive, threatening posture, Byosiere says. They first appear to think its another animal. And then slowly, you see many start to interact with the mirror, she says. In the test, researchers mark the animal with paint or a sticker somewhere they cant normally see. If, when they look at the mark in the mirror, they try to touch it on their body, its a sign they recognize themselves as the animal in the mirror.

But in the videos, the cat isnt looking at itself, its looking at a person. And the cat filters arent on a mirror theyre on a screen, which can flicker in subtle ways, and might be visually different from a mirror to animals. Researchers have started to study how dogs respond to stimuli on a screen, and it seems that they recognize objects on the screen the same way they do in real life. Because theres not much research on cat cognition, we dont know how cats interact with screens, or how they would perceive the properties of screens, Byosiere says.

Its also hard to draw conclusions from videos taken in an uncontrolled environment. We can never really get at what the owner did beforehand, she says. Theres no way to know if its the first time the cat has seen the filter, or if theres something else going on in the background that gets their attention. We dont know if this context is unique, or if it indicates anything about how attentive cats are.

The Verges deputy editor Elizabeth Lopatto tested the filter with her cat, Jeeves, with mixed results. Jeeves turned back to look at her face on the first try, but only after she spoke. And the second time, Jeeves uninterested jumped off her lap and wandered away.

Even if they cant prove anything about how cats think, the videos are fun. Most scientists and researchers really do like these videos, Byosiere says. If the cats are happy to do this, and its not disturbing them, great. They also show that people are interested in learning why their cats behave the way they do, she says. Its exciting because then hopefully theres room for people to do this type of research on cats.

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The Snapchat cat filter shows how little we know about cat cognition - The Verge

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December 18th, 2019 at 2:48 am

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