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Anyone who rises to the 5:00 a.m. wake-up call of a hungry cat knows that this early morning meow has a clear meaning—Feed Me Now! But can meows alone carry clear messages in different contexts? Nicholas Nicastro and Michael Owren, both formerly in the psychology department at Cornell University, have an interesting answer.

While Nicastro was a graduate student at Cornell, he recorded the meows of 12 cats in five different contexts—food related (prior to regular feeding), agonistic (when being petted too vigorously), affiliative (when the cat solicited affection from the owners), obstacle (when the cat wanted in or out), and distress (when the cat was taken for a car ride). Then under a carefully controlled laboratory setting, he tested people in their ability to categorize the calls correctly without the help of any visual or contextual cues.

Prior to testing, Nicastro had an idea of what the results might be. “Knowing my own cats, I thought I could do pretty well,” says Nicastro, so he expected listeners to score fairly well. But what he found surprised him. “We found that people were very bad at sorting the calls by production context.” Those with little cat experience performed slightly above chance. People with an affinity for cats scored a bit better though, which indicates that practice improves performance.

When Nicastro and Owren’s research found that the calls didn’t convey specific word-like messages they wondered what the calls were communicating. “They’re clearly communicating to us,” says Nicastro. “Just not like human language might be.”

So Nicastro took a separate set of human guinea pigs—mostly psychology students in need of extra credit—and asked them to rate the meows on how pleasant they sounded or how urgent they sounded. They found that the more urgent the call, the less pleasant. And the acoustic analysis showed that the same features underlie both responses. Urgent calls were longer in duration and lower pitched compared to more pleasant calls. “This suggests that cats can easily give people impressions that motivate them to take some action,” says Nicastro. Which brings up another point.

While we may take it for granted that cats communicate by meowing, it turns out they do most of their meowing to humans rather than to each other. Feral cats—domesticated cats that grow up in the wild—don’t meow much. Additionally, wild felids meow mostly as cubs and these vocalizations decline as they mature.

This difference in meow rates between wild felids and the common housecat likely has to do with 5000 years of domestication of the housecat. During domestication, a process by which cats knocked on the door of human civilization and invited themselves in, cats that were the tamest and could engage humans the best were more likely to earn a permanent stay.

According to Owren, whose research interests focus on understanding how vocalizations can be used to influence the behaviors of others (humans and other mammals), particularly those vocalizations that are not language-based, meows are a practical way for cats to draw human attention and cat meows may have evolved to tap into sensitivities in human hearing.“Meows are particularly modulated in pitch,” says Owren, “and humans are much more sensitive to pitch modulation than most animals.” In fact, humans are ten times more sensitive to pitch modulation than cats, and not surprisingly, pitch modulation plays a huge role on emotional effect on humans. For example, “In infant-directed speech where parents speak to infants, they tend to produce extreme pitch modulation,” says Owren. “This modulation really affects the arousal level of the infant,” he continues. “ It draws their attention. Then if you produce sounds that are mostly up-sweeping they will increase the infants arousal and attention and if they’re mostly down-sweeping they will be soothing to the infant.”

It makes sense that individuals that could tap into the human emotional response might become preferred pets. But make no mistake, neither Nicastro nor Owren are stating that cats manipulate people by consciously altering their meows. The variation is more akin to how infants communicate through crying. When infants cry, they learn that they get results when they cry in certain ways. “It’s not that they’re saying I’m going to cry this way so I can get that,” states Nicastro. Infants just use whichever cries work. Similarly, cats can learn through trial and error. “Their strategy might be to produce pitch modulating sounds that engage human hearing well,” says Owren, “and then they could vary these sounds over time if the humans are not responding.” These variations need not be lyrical or lovely to the human ear. Just as an infant needing a diaper change rarely emits pleasant-sounding cries which parents could easily ignore—they usually blast ear-shattering screams that elicit immediate parental action—with cats, probably the more irritating the call, the more likely it is to create a reaction. So even if meows are not like human words, they still work well as a way to call humans to action, even at 5:00 a.m. in the morning.

Nicholas Nicastor is an author on topics as varied as his degrees which include a B.A. in English from Cornell University (1985), an M.F.A. in filmmaking from New York University (1991), a M.A. in archaeology and a PhD in psychology from Cornell (1996 and 2003).

Michael Owren is Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Chair of the Cognitive Sciences Program at Georgia State University.


Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2003

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