On cats and their food

When I first bring home my cat and  start feeding her, of course, she eats.

She eats because it smells appealing. Her sniffer makes her want to eat it.

Then, of course, she eats it and enjoys herself. She enjoys herself because the feeling of discomfort that her hungry body was sending her has stopped as a result of her meal.

The next time she gets hungry, she vaguely remembers that her feeding happened in a certain location, and so, wanders through every now and then hoping for a repeat. Aside from that, it’s basically the same.

The next time, she wanders past the bowl occassionally, but also comes to check on me every once in a while, since the act of feeding has become associated in her mind with me as well as her bowl.

Over time, she stops checking the bowl when I’m not there, since it has never provided her with a meal in my absence.

At some point, I forget to feed her at the right time and her discomfort causes her to utter a meow of complaint in my presence. Her objection causes me to remember my negligence and promptly rise to feed her.

Soon it becomes a vague memory to her that meows of complaint sometimes bring food. This assumption is periodically both reenforced and discouraged, since many times she will complain without good reason and I will fail to respond. Since it nevertheless occasionally yields positive results, she persists in her complaint.

Since every feeding time in memory has been preceded by me physically making my way over to the bowl, her most real and consistent associative memory with her feeding is my presence at the food bowl. For this reason, neither her bowl nor myself can excite her anticipatory palate like combination of the both of us in the same place can. As a result, when she’s hungry, she will take every motion that I make in the direction of the bowl as a potential sign that she might be fed. For example, if I rise from my perch on the couch for the purposes of urination and move in the direction of the bathroom, she will trot along with me fully expecting me to continue past the bathroom door to the kitchen, looking back in anticipation when I fail to do so.

At some point, I decide to attach an old wristwatch to the jug that contains her food. The watch is programmed to beep forth an alarm at nine a.m. each morning. It is my intent that she should come to associate the beeping with her feeding time and learn to refrain from begging loudly outside my bedroom while I’m trying to sleep.

To a certain extent, the plan works like a charm. With each instance of a beep-preceded feeding, she comes to further expect that the alarm is a sure sign that food is coming. Eventually, the sound of its electronic chime will cause her to come bounding and chirping expectantly to her bowl from wherever she happens to be at the time it goes off.

To another certain extent, the plan fails miserably, for there is no way to convince her that the beeping of the watch is the only sign of feeding that she is to observe as a legitimate sign. If she is hungry and she sees me loitering by her bowl, she will no doubt anticipate a feeding since every single incidence of feeding without fail has been preceded by my close proximity to her bowl. As such, despite the fact that she is never fed in the absence of the alarm and the similar fact that the alarm never goes off without her feeding following closely behind, she nevertheless continues to take the other indications of a feeding as equallly valid portents of a full bowl.

Her inability to recognize the exclusivity of the watch alarm with regards to her feeding time is a direct result of of the lack of sophistication in her brain.

When it comes to signal and response, she is incapable of processing negatives, meaning that she hasn’t the ability to form thoughts such as: “Despite the fact that Dave is standing right next to my bowl, I know I shan’t be fed since my alarm has yet to go off.” Her capabilities go as far as thoughts like: “That alarm precedes my food” and “Dave standing there means that I may well be fed.”

I post these commonplace and potentially boring observations only because they are connected — however tenuously — to Julian Jaynes’s definition of consciousness (consciousness being a favourite topic of this site).

Jaynes, of course, states that it is language that allowed us the level of mental sophistication that we enjoy. Our ability to manipulate complex symbols within our heads. My cat cannot do this, and so she is ever scurrying down the hallway each time a certain stimulus (be it hunger, my movement, a watch alarm, etc.) triggers her time-for-feeding response.

This is an example of what Jaynes would call consciousness vs. reactivity.

If this seems obvious to you, be proud and move on. If it doesn’t, feel free  to check out our ever-expanding (but as yet somewhat incomplete) consciousness hub.

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