What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Every morning, I am awakened by the sound of something banging against the full-length mirror in my bedroom. (OK, most mornings. Many mornings.)
It’s the cat — one of the cats — standing on his hind legs, front paws doing a full running man against the mirror. He only ever does this at 5 or 5:30 a.m., probably because he knows it’s a surefire way to get me out of bed. Because all I need is a cat covered in cuts from a broken mirror, especially at that hour of the day.
Over the past month or so, I have spent A LOT of time driving back and forth from the veterinarian’s offices with this cat (Oscar) for an unrelated issue we were, thankfully, able to resolve. A lot of time. So all I need is something else, another ailment, some new reason to spend hours at the veterinary clinic, as much as I do like them. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about me, after all.
In any case, I’m telling you this not because I think you care about the comings and goings of my cat, necessarily, but because there are people — animal behaviourists, I guess — who would argue that when Oscar sees his reflection in the mirror, he thinks he’s seeing a strange cat encroaching on his territory. That he doesn’t and is not capable of having a sense of self. That cats and dogs are not capable of understanding the concept of self-awareness.
So I was obviously intrigued when I came across a Salon.com article, an excerpt from a book by Marcus du Sautoy with the headline: Is your cat self-aware? At the top of the story was a photo of a kitten pawing at its reflection in a mirror, because of course.
So of course I had to read it. Because if Oscar really does think the reflection in the mirror is a mean rival cat, why does the rival cat only seemingly appear between 5 and 5:30 a.m., coincidentally around the time he gets breakfast?
Why isn’t he taking on the cat in the mirror at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. or any other time he walks past it? He’s basically learned that batting away at the mirror achieves the desired result of me getting out of bed, so isn’t this kind of smart, learned behaviour?
Anyhoo, the story is essentially about a study conducted by animal behaviourist Gordon Gallup in the late 1960s, which tried to determine what animals see when they look in the mirror. I’ll spare you the suspense: most animals see rival animals, not themselves, according to his experiments. The whole article had a fairly philosophical tone, asking questions like: as a human, do I have a sense of “I” and how do we even begin to answer questions like that?
At first I was annoyed that Salon lured me in with a photo of a cute kitty and a snappy headline to read about a study that is, what, 50 years old?
But then I started thinking about what people see when they look in the mirror. Is it different from how a cat sees a strange rival cat in the mirror?
If we’re going to get all philosophical, can I not argue that there are days when I look in the aforementioned full length mirror and see a six-foot Glamazon (OK, maybe not six feet, but at least five-foot-five) with flowing, shimmery hair and there are others when I see a squat troll doll spitting back at me?
Isn’t every AXE body spray ad based on the premise that twenty-something men look in the mirror and see Tom Brady when they probably more closely resemble Danny DeVito? No offence to Danny DeVito, of course, but come on.
And do I ever want to take out the squat troll doll with a hammer but don’t, because I really don’t want to clean up shards of broken mirror?
All this to say, that sure, science says my cat is not self-aware. I’m also told my pets are not capable of being manipulative. That when I suspect they’re conspiring to wake me up, to get me to drop food, to distract me from my dinner plate, it’s just the troll doll in the mirror putting thoughts in my head.
Right. Well, I’ll remember that tomorrow morning when Oscar decides to do his morning Running Man dance.
And if it’s a nice day, I’ll wear that dress that makes me look like a five-foot-five Glamazon.
He’s basically learned that batting away at the mirror achieves the desired result of me getting out of bed.
There are people who would argue that when Oscar sees his reflection, he thinks he’s seeing a strange cat encroaching on his territory. That he doesn’t and is not capable of having a sense of self.