Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

Why Cats Should Teach

Feline emotional intelligence serves children better than testing

Nicky
Regal in his bearing.
Jeff Borchers
Other creatures are waiting for humans to make an overture to the higher spirits, and once the quest for relationship is set into motion, they join in bringing their knowledge to add to our understanding.  -Vine Deloria, Jr.

I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.  -Jules Verne

Our society places much stock in being intelligent and having smart children, which is why schools administer so many different kinds of tests. But over the last decade, educators and parents have seriously challenged such approaches, standardizing tests, and the premise upon which they are based. [2,3]

Psychologists also make the point that there is much more than being good at solving problems and memorizing numbers and names; intelligence has to do with prosocial emotions and moral development. [4] Significantly, today's W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies score poorly in this arena when compared with other animals and our subsistence human ancestors. Children increasingly lack the emotional and social intelligence that are hallmarks of animal societies. The domestic cat does not, however. [5, 6] Wrongfully impugned as stand-offish and cold, in reality Mehitabel and her compatriots score off the charts when it comes to emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is generally described by four abilities: how well we perceive emotions in others, how we use our emotions, how we understand our own feelings and those of others, and how we regulate and manage emotions. Sheep, cats, and other animals are keen detectives at identifying nuanced shifts in expressions, not only of their own species, but those of humans.

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Sarah
Safe in sleep.
Jeff Borchers
This should come as no surprise. Like human brains and minds, those of cats are shaped by early interactions with parents during what neuroscientists call right brain-to-right brain communication. Psychological and communication overlap among species is natural because we all use the same "mental and emotional activities in reading an animal as we do in reading a human," [7] a point that Charles Darwin made 150 years ago in his studies of emotion [8]. What we perceive relies extensively on "nonverbal channels of communication in day-to-day emotional as well as interpersonal exchanges." [9] Indeed, the "verbal channel, language, is a relatively poor medium for expressing the quality, intensity and nuancing of emotion and affect in different social situations. . .[and] the face is thought to have primacy in signaling affective information." [8, 9] Emotional information conveyed through facial expression and touch start well before we begin to learn how to say words.

Cats are also masters of harnessing emotions to help them figure things out. Once it was thought that emotions only muddied clear thinking, but no more. Emotions play a key role in helping make good decisions. [4] The emotionally intelligent cat knows just how use moods and emotional intuition to match the task at hand, whether it is a mouse to be caught or a sibling to be played with in the right way so as not to start a fight. This brings us to the third kind of empathetic skill that our feline kin possess.

Cats employ the same skills to read what an unfamiliar cat or dog is thinking as they do when trying to fathom what their human guardian needs-a playful swat or an affectionate purr. Just like colors of the rainbow, moods and feeling change subtly. In terms of "attachment and affect regulation...[companion animals] are acutely attuned and responsive to their [guardian's] moods and movements. [10] Their finely-tuned interpersonal and prosocial capabilities are evidenced by the fact that cats and dogs "rarely evoke the kinds of negative feelings or conflict to which human interactions are susceptible" and can elevate oxytocin levels of their guardian within thirty minutes. [10, 11,12,13]

Cats possess as many emotions and feel as deeply as we do. The only real difference is that individuals and species, like different human cultures, express their feelings in different ways. No one would argue that someone from the cool lands of Finland feels any less than someone from colorful Italy. Cats, dogs, humans-even fish-need as much love, care, and concern as we desire for ourselves.

If we are truly committed to revitalizing empathy and care in lieu of violence and indifference, then schools would be well advised to hire cats for our children's education and school administration.


Two felines, ready to teach the world.
See through the eyes of the heart.
Jeff Borchers
Literature Cited

[1] Deloria V., Jr (2006) The World We Used to Live in: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Press.

[2] Schools Matter. (2011). Resolution: NCTE will oppose common core standards and national tests. Retrieved October 11, 2011.

[3] Rutkoff, A. (2010). Change in Testing Standards Fuels Education Critics. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 11, 2011.

[4] Goleman, D.(1997) Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Press.

[5] Narvaez, D. (2011). What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong. Psychology Today.

[6] Narvaez, D (2010). Science of morality? Not so fast. Psychology Today.

[7] Donovan, J. (2007) Caring to dialogue: Feminism and the treatment of animals. In Donovan J, Adams CJ (eds) The feminist care tradition in animal ethics: A reader. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 360-371.

[8] Bradshaw, G.A. 2010. You see me, but do you hear me? The science and sensibility of trans-species dialogue. Feminism and Psychology, 20(3) 407-419.

[9] Schore AN (2005b) A neuropsychoanalytic viewpoint: Commentary on Steven Knoblauch. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15(6), 829-854.

[10] Sable, P. (2007). Accentuating the positive in adult attachments. Attachment & Human Development, 9(4), 361-374.

[11] Bonas, S., McNicholas, J., & Collis, G. M. (2000). Pets in the network of family relationships: an empirical study. In A. L. Podberscek, E. S. Paul, & J. A. Serpell (Eds.), Companion animals and us: exploring the relationships between people and pets (pp. 209 - 236). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Coren, S. (2004). How dogs think. New York: Free Press.

[13] Miklo´ si, A., Topa´l, J., & Csa´nyi, V. (2004). Comparative social cognition: what can dogs teach us? The Association for the Study of Animal Behavior, 67, 995 - 1004.

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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