A part of the domestic cat’s brain can measure time

Domestic cats have an internal clock much like humans so they can measure time. That’s the distinct possibility that I take from a recent study.

Domestic cats have an internal clock

Domestic cats have an internal clock

Most cat lovers have wondered how their domestic cat knows when they are about to return from work. A new study from Northwestern University may be able to provide us with an answer. Their study provides evidence that animals can judge time. The study was carried out on mice but can be extrapolated to refer to animals in general.

The study

The language of the study is very technical so I won’t reproduce it here except for short extracts and I’ll try and summarise it in layman’s language. They focused on a part of the brain called the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC). It is located in the brain’s temporal lobe and is associated with memory and navigation.

The researchers concluded that their results suggest “the existence of largely non-overlapping subcircuits in MEC encoding time during immobility or space during locomotion”.

As I understand it there are neurons (nerve cells) in this part of the brain which store information allowing the cells to measure the lapse of time. It seems that the cells work a little bit like a stopwatch.

The experiment

The experiment, as mentioned, concerned mice. They had mice run down a corridor where there was a door. The mice had to wait six seconds for the door to open before they could reach the reward. When they removed the door at the same place the mice still stopped for six seconds.

The author of the experiment said:

“The important point here is that the mouse doesn’t know when the door is open or closed because it’s invisible. The only way he can solve this task efficiently is by using his brain’s internal sense of time.”

Brain activity

The team also measured the brain activity of the mice. They watched the mice’s neurons fire. They discovered that when the mice are running down the corridor a certain set of brain cells are working but when they stopped at the door those cells are turned off and a new set of cells are turned on. They call the cells “timing cells”. They only came on when the mice were resting. They concluded that the cells “actually encode how much time the animal has been resting”.

I’ll leave it there for the time being. It is the first time that cat owners have a genuine insight into how their cat companions know when they’re coming home. There are many other examples of when a sense of time by a cat is needed. So perhaps, domestic cats have a special set of brain cells which act a little bit like a stop watch allowing them to measure time.

This sounds like the ‘internal clock’ of humans.

P.S. We know that cats detect the fading odor of urine marking as a measurement of time but this article describes an entirely different process.


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About Michael Broad

Michael is retired! He retired at age 57 and at Aug 2018 is approaching 70. He worked in many jobs. The last job he did was as a solicitor practicing general law. He loves animals and is passionate about animal welfare. He also loves photography and nature. He hates animal abuse. He has owned and managed this site since 2007. There are around 13k pages so please use the custom search facility!


A part of the domestic cat’s brain can measure time — 4 Comments

  1. Please let readers know that these are groups of neurons firing together like a ballet, a dance, in the same choreography as the original event. These groups of neurons respond, fire, in the same pattern as the original event, in those particular areas associated with each of the senses. This is the best way I can explain it as a layperson. Feedback? Thanks.

  2. Extrapolated from mice…

    Behaviourist lab based science has such a long way to go.

    Computer modelling could have provided more reliable results.

    Ethology is the answer. But it requires that science truly observes the being in their own environment. Perception of time can be established, without isolated, crude behaviourism.

    Life is not about crude behaviourism.

    • Do you believe that cats have brain cells which can measure time? It makes sense to me. I guess humans have them and the cat has a similar physiology.

      • Of course I do, similar behaviours between different species have shown time and time again, the presence of similar neurological structures and processes.

        EG: Mammals have been shown to demonstrate complex emotions, even when they have little in the way of pre-frontal cortex. The complex emotions just occur in other parts of the brain. See Francis Crick Institute for further info.

        Shame that living beings have to be experimented on in synthesised mock ups of their actual living environment, and often killed as a conclusion to observation.

        One day, ethology will knock crude behaviourism/vivisection based experimentation to establish the psychology of all species, off of the thrones, we will all benefit.

        One day the emperor will actually wear some clothes!

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