Your cat is sitting on your lap, purring in a deep, soothed contentment. You get up to leave the room. What is your cat thinking about now?
There's a good chance it's now spending at least some amount of mental energy to tracking your whereabouts, and these are more than just idle thoughts.
On some level of consciousness, your cat is mentally mapping your spatial position based on audio clues in the environment, including the sound of your voice, according to new research.
These kinds of insights about the whereabouts of others are a form of what's called socio-spatial cognition, in which animals keep mental tabs on the inferred locations of other group members, even if they're not visibly present.
Just how well-developed this ability is in cats, however, isn't fully clear. To explore the phenomenon, scientists in Japan conducted what was probably quite a fun experiment.
In tests with dozens of domestic cats (both house cats and cats from cat cafes), researchers from Kyoto University would set up an individual cat in a room that the animal was familiar with. In this room, they placed a wireless Bluetooth speaker, while a different speaker was placed outside the room.
Then, they played out a few combinations of sound and location tests, to probe the cats' socio-spatial abilities. The most telling was a recording of the cat owner's voice from one of the speakers, before the same recording played from the other speaker just a few seconds later.
"Results showed that cats were surprised when their owner appeared to be 'teleported' to a new, unexpected location," the researchers write in their paper, noting that the animals did not react in the same way when familiar cat vocalizations or electronic sounds were played through the speakers.
"These results suggest that cats hold a mental representation of the unseen owner and map their owner's location from the owner's voice, showing evidence of socio-spatial cognition."
According to the researchers, it's not clear from the tests as to whether the cats were surprised by the owner's presence in an unexpected location, or rather by their apparent absence in the expected location.
Future 'impossible teleportation' experiments might be able to help clear that up.
"Our finding that cats mentally map their owner's location from their voice corresponds at least to visible displacement in object permanence. Further studies on invisible displacement could benefit from using auditory stimuli, as indeed could similar research on other species," the researchers write.
"Mentally representing the outside world and manipulating those representations flexibly is an important feature in complex thinking and a fundamental aspect of cognition."
For now, all we know is that they're definitely tracking us.
The findings are reported in PLOS One.