Cats are seen as aloof and mysterious, partly because it’s difficult to tell what they’re thinking about. They aren’t as expressive as dogs and lack the communication skills of some parrots. Few scientific studies have explored how cats think and what they think about since they’re difficult subjects to study. However, we can make reasoned assessments based on a cat’s brain structure and mannerisms.
Cats are incapable of introspective or idle thoughts because they lack a default mode network. These are parts of the brain that are activated when not actively thinking. Cats do not think about the future, their feelings, or themselves. They are not capable of learning or thinking in a language as they lack Wernicke-like areas. However, they can recall memories and think about those memories to adjust their current behavior.
Unlike humans, they cannot do this consciously, only subconsciously. Still, cats can think about previous experiences and use them to guide their behavior. Only having memories to rely on limits the scope of things cats can think about. However, as long as they’re happy and contented, they don’t really need much more.
Do Cats Think About Things?
A cat’s aloof and mysterious behavior can make it seem like a thoughtless animal. In truth, cats can think about various matters, but not at the same level that humans can. However, cats cannot think about:
- Future events
- Past events
- How they feel about humans
- Their environment
They cannot daydream or ruminate about the meaning of things because they lack a default mode network. The default mode network is a group of brain segments that interconnect and activate when humans are thinking idly. Whenever we are not focused on a goal, we let our minds wander, and our default mode network is active.
Because of this network, we can think about ourselves and our feelings more deeply. Scientists have yet to find a similar default mode network in any animal. That’s why animals such as cats appear so simple-minded. That is not to say that cats are stupid or thoughtless. It just means they cannot think about the world or themselves introspectively.
How Are Cats Able to Think?
Cats aren’t able to contemplate things, so they only think about things circumstantially. For example, when a cat is resting with its eyes closed, it isn’t thinking about anything. However, if you walk up to your cat and present it with a new toy, it will use its working memory to learn about the new object.
In particular, it will visualize it in its mind and subconsciously try to link it to a previous experience. This will help the cat determine if the toy is safe to approach. Depending on its previous experiences, it will react differently. That’s why some cats pounce on new toys from the get-go, while others are disinterested, and others still are scared.
This working memory that cats use is only active when they are presented with new information. After the cat becomes familiar with the toy, it will not think about playing with it. After all, by that point, it’s acting on instinct.
What is a Cat’s Thought Process?
The thought process of a cat is relatively simple. When it’s idle and not paying attention, it isn’t thinking about anything. You can view it as a meditative state in which the cat can feel (contentedness, sleepiness, etc.), but it cannot think about its feelings.
The cat may then activate its working memory when something disrupts or distracts it from this state. That thought process allows it to react appropriately when facing certain situations.
Working memory is defined as the cognitive system that can hold information for a short period of time. In particular, it does this to guide decision-making. It sounds like short-term memory, and many people confuse the two, but there is a difference.
Short-term memory takes information and then lets it go quickly. That’s true regardless of whether or not we used the information for something. Working memory, on the other hand, takes information for a brief period. This is specifically done so the animal can manipulate its performance in cognitive tasks.
When Do Cats Use Working Memory?
For example, if you’re teaching your cat how to high-five your hand using treats, it will use its working memory. In particular, it will link the act of touching your hand with getting a tasty snack. It will draw upon its working memory to remember what it has to do to get the treat as it learns how to complete the act.
This only works while the cat is learning the trick. Once it learns the trick and stores it in its long-term memory, it will complete it because it has been conditioned. It will instinctually associate the high-five gesture with snacks and do it out of habit. It’s not that it’s actively thinking about it.
Do Cats Think in English?
Cats are not capable of thinking in English because they do not understand the English language. Of course, it might seem like they understand what we say. However, they are not actually reacting to our words because they cannot process them when we speak.
Cats are creatures of habit. They can associate certain gestures, sounds, and smells with specific things. If you always ask your cat if it’s hungry just before feeding it, it will come to associate the words, your tone of voice and the can in your hand with food. It will then react to this knowledge.
When you ask if it’s hungry, the reaction you get from your cat comes from conditioning and habit. It’s not from an understanding of the English language.
What Language Do Cats Think In?
Cats do not think in any language. A human’s ability to think in a language is attributed to a section in the brain called Wernecke’s area. This is in charge of language comprehension.
Researchers have yet to find a similar region in a cat’s brain. Because of that, it’s safe to say that they cannot think in any language at all. It takes a lot of neurological processing to learn, comprehend, and speak a language. Even though cats are intelligent, they don’t have the proper brain composition to think in a language.
Do Cats Think in Meows?
Cats meow to communicate with us all the time. As a matter of fact, they only meow in our presence since cat-to-cat communication is mostly non-verbal. If they can vocalize to communicate with us, they must think in meows, right? In truth, cats do not think in meows. Meowing should not be considered a language at all.
Cats meow to us because they’ve learned it’s the best way to get our attention. It may appear like they are saying something, of course. In reality, it’s just a noise they make because it gets a reaction from humans.
Cats can produce different meows to express different intentions. However, this doesn’t mean they think of the meow and vocalize it in their head.
For example, you may tap your desk to catch the attention of someone sitting beside you. However, that doesn’t mean you are thinking in taps. It’s just a noise you made in the hopes of the person near you looking your way. If you tap more insistently and faster, it indicates impatience, but you are not thinking in taps.
When annoyed, cats may vocalize a deeper-sounding meow that sounds like a warning. However, it’s just a noise that indicates intent. Cats are not capable of thinking in a comprehensive code. Any vocalization they make comes from an understanding of:
- Human interactions
- Auditory cues
- Body language
How Do Cats Think Without a Language?
To humans, it may seem odd for a cat to think without a language. After all, most of us think in our language, so a life without that kind of thought processing is difficult to imagine. Still, you must remember: not all humans think in languages. Those that do still don’t think in languages all the time.
Cats can think in pictures. They use their working memory to process information and guide their actions temporarily. They have logic and reasoning capabilities without needing to use language. That’s much like babies who have yet to learn how to talk. When a cat is learning something, it uses its senses to make sense of things.
This is proven by the fact that cats have excellent object permanence. According to George Mason University, cats have fully developed sensorimotor intelligence. This ability to reason suggests that language comprehension is not necessary when it comes to logical thinking.
Do Cats Think About Their Past?
Cats are not able to think about their past. That’s because they don’t have the brain structure required to contemplate events that happened. It may seem like they remember things based on their reactions, of course. However, this has nothing to do with their thought process and more to do with their instincts.
Much of a cat’s personality is shaped by what it goes through when it is a kitten. Like any animal, it’s able to experience traumatic events and develop certain neuroses. For example, a kitten that was chased out of homes with brooms might develop a fear of brooms that carries on into adulthood. However, this does not mean that it can actively think about specific moments in its past.
When a cat is traumatized by something, it learns to avoid it. The next time it reencounters the same thing (let’s say, the broom), it cannot recall in detail all its previous encounters with brooms. It’s able to avoid it instinctually, but only because the trauma has left an imprint on its mind. This is a survival technique that brains use to protect the host from harm or stress.
Even if your cat has never seen a snake before, it might be scared of cucumbers because they resemble snakes. Obviously, the cat isn’t frightened because it remembers an encounter with a snake. Instead, it’s responding to something that’s triggering a surge of neurochemicals that say the object is dangerous. The same thing occurs when it’s something or someone that the cat has already encountered in the past.
The same also goes for positive experiences. Every time you pet your cat, and it purrs happily, it’s not thinking about all the other times you pet it. It just enjoys the moment for what it is.
What Do Cats Think About When They Stare?
This depends on what the cat is staring at. Whether it’s thinking about anything at all also depends on the object of its gaze. If the cat is staring at a moving object it wants to pounce on, it might not be thinking. Instead, it’s letting its hunter instincts take over, simply waiting for the right time to strike.
If it’s staring at you, that’s a completely different story. A lot of cat-to-cat communication is non-verbal. Staring is just another form of communication to them, like meowing.
If the stares are long, but the cat’s eyes are half-closed, it might be sleepy or showing you affection. Slow-blinking means the cat is comfortable with you and cares for you. Of course, the cat isn’t actively thinking about you and its feelings for you. However, it is experiencing the emotions as they happen.
If the cat has a fixated stare at a wall, it isn’t thinking about anything in particular. Instead, it’s enjoying the feeling of being in a safe environment—no thoughts, head empty, but extremely contented.
What Do Cats Think About Their Owners?
Despite their loner attitude, studies have shown that cats can grow attached to their owners. Still, knowing that your feline cares about you might not be enough to sate your curiosity. How do cats really see us? What do they think of who we are and what we do?
There is no official study on this theory, but feline experts have reason to believe that cats see us like big, hairless cats. This is drawn from feline behavior when around other cats vs. humans. When around their owners, cats will:
- Groom them
- Bring them food
- Rub against them in the same way they would any cat
Their energy levels do not change, regardless of whether or not they are in the presence of humans they trust or cats they trust. In comparison, dogs behave differently when humans are around. This signals to experts that they are aware of humans being different from them. Cats show no such change, so we can assume they think of us as weird cats.
Of course, knowing what we know about cats’ brains, they cannot consider their feelings about us. Even if they are attached to their owners, their relationship with humans is not something they ponder.
How Do I Know What My Cat is Thinking?
The best way to know what your cat is thinking is simply spending time with it. Cats do things out of instinct and habit. When it wants something, it will communicate depending on how you’ve reacted to its efforts in the past.
All cats have their own distinct personalities and ways of communicating. The more time you spend with your cat, the more you’ll understand how it thinks.
With that said, cats still aren’t fully domesticated and might display some strange and wild behavior that leaves us scratching our heads. After all, it wouldn’t be a cat if it didn’t behave strangely.