Image via Gabriella Smith
ABSTRACT breaks down mind-boggling scientific research, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.
Cats are notorious for crawling into every available small, enclosed space: boxes, laundry baskets, trash cans. And as many viral videos have shown, to the collective confusion of the internet, cats even sit on flat, square objects. Now new research has given its first glimpse into the study of the phenomenon.
Researchers from the City University of New York (CUNY) and the School of Psychology and Public Health in Australia studied the cognition of cats and specifically whether they could perceive quadratic optical illusions. They found that the box doesn’t have to be 3D to attract a cat: you will also feel comfortable in a glued-on square or an optical illusion of a square. The study with the title “If I fit, I sit: A civil science study on the susceptibility to illusory contours in domestic cats” was released on April 30 in Applied Animal Behavior Science, an Elsevier journal.
In order to study domestic cats in their natural habitat, the authors carried out a civil science study. A big reason they used citizen science is because COVID-19 hit exactly when research was supposed to begin, according to Gabriella Smith, lead author on the study.
“We flirted with the idea of going to the lab, but it made more sense for the people at home to do it,” said Smith. “Houses are more comfortable for cats.”
The team sent each participating cat owner a box of materials to create three different shapes: a glued square, a Kanizsa illusion, and a control. A Kanizsa illusion consists of four “Pac-Man” shapes arranged so that the negative space forms a square. The controls used the same Pac-Man shapes, but were arranged so as not to create the illusion of a square.
The cats sat in the Kanizsa places and the sticky places and were not in the control. According to the study, this means that cats are able to “perceive illusory contours”. Illusory outlines are visual cues that indicate the edge of a shape that doesn’t actually exist. In this case, the Kanizsa illusion uses shapes to mark the corners of a square and the brain fills in the rest of the shape. People develop illusory contour perception for around 3 to 4 months, which increases with age.
“Many animals were designed to perform this type of exercise,” said Smith. “It probably has to do with navigating the area. Know when not to go into a tree or off a cliff. ”
The perception of illusory contours has been examined in many other species, but this is the first study in which domestic cats are susceptible to illusory contours in an “environmentally relevant paradigm”. That is, a home, not a laboratory.
As far as the authors know, this is also the first civil science study on cat cognition and the first formal investigation into the attraction of cats to 2D instead of 3D housings.
One problem with using citizen science to track cat behavior is that many participants did not complete the study. As intended, the study lasted six days, with a 5-minute study each day. The citizen scientists who own cats placed the cat in another room and laid out the visual stimuli, measuring them accurately to ensure consistency. Then they put on dark sunglasses (so as not to prompt the cats visually) and let them back into the room.
Out of 500 cats and owners, only 30 completed the entire trial, significantly reducing the sample size. Within this sample size, the cats showed a clear preference for the box-like illusions over the controls. However, to further advance cognitive research, the paper recommends that future studies only require owners to conduct the experiment for one day (instead of six) to increase the likelihood of completing it.
Smith said she is also curious how this research applies to non-domesticated cats such as large wild cats.
“We don’t know if wildcats are susceptible to this illusion because they may not hit corners and walls in the same way,” said Smith.