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.
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 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, 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.”
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.