Exactly what goes on inside the mind of a cat is something of a mystery to science, although we do know that they hate cucumbers and love cardboard boxes. According to new research, felines’ affinity for small enclosed spaces is so great that they will even attempt to sit in illusory boxes that don’t actually exist.
Reporting their findings in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the researchers explain how their motivation was not to test the extent of cats’ obsession with boxes, but to gain a deeper insight into the animals’ visual perception. Specifically, they sought to test whether cats are capable of perceiving an illusory square in the same way that they do a real one.
To do this they recruited 500 humans and their pet cats for the best-named citizen science project – "If I Fits I Sits" – and asked them to perform a series of experiments at home. The tests centered around the Kanizsa square illusion, which involves four Pacman-like shapes arranged to look like the four corners of a square.
When humans view a Kanizsa square, our brains automatically fill in the gaps, with the result being that we perceive the presence of an actual square despite the fact only the corners are visible.
Cat owners were instructed to film their pets’ behavior when presented with a Kanizsa square, an actual square taped onto the floor, and a control scenario involving the components of the Kanisza square arranged in a way that in no way resembles a square. The purpose of this experiment was to try and observe whether cats showed a preference for sitting inside any of the shapes presented to them.
To prevent owners from unintentionally influencing their pets with their eyes, they were asked to wear dark sunglasses for the duration of the experiment. Of the 500 participants, only 30 were able to complete all of the tests required by the study authors.
“Cats selected the Kanizsa illusion just as often as the square and more often than the control, indicating that domestic cats may treat the subjective Kanizsa contours as they do real contours,” wrote the researchers. While this finding provides an interesting insight into cats’ visual perception, many questions remain unanswered as to why cats behave the way they do.
“Affectionately termed “if I fits I sits”, the urge to inhabit enclosed spaces is well-known to cat owners and has been documented to decrease stress in laboratory and shelter cats given boxes in which to hide,” explain the study authors.
“The reason for this behavior is still unknown but is clearly highly desirable.”
Having determined that cats’ love for sitting in boxes extends to imaginary squares, the question of whether or not they are also frightened of illusory cucumbers becomes the next burning issue for science to address.