.Gif Source: Z. Scott / We Invent You.
If Dogecoin is anything to go by, dogs are the new cats of the Internet, except in October, when cats are the cats of the Internet.
Cats are prominent in stories in which human and animal senses overlap. The cat symbolizes an unaccountable metamorphosis from animal to human and back again, and is often used as a metaphor for the transition from wilderness to civilization and the precariousness of civilization. The symbol of that transition must be ancient, because the earliest known example of domesticated felines dates from 9,500 years ago.
Bakeneko are Japan's feline answer to werewolves: "Bakeneko prostitutes [who could take near-human form] were a common urban legend / folklore during the Edo period." Image Source: 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.
Among the Japanese yōkai, or supernatural creatures, one finds the demonic bakeneko (化け猫, "changed cat"). The bakeneko symbolizes this transition from wilderness to civilization because, as Wiki puts it,
"Cats in particular ... have acquired a great number of tales and superstitions surrounding them, due to the unique position they occupy between nature and civilization. As cities and towns were established and humans began living farther apart from nature, cats came with them. Since cats live close to humans yet retain their wild essence and air of mystery, stories grew up around them, and gradually the image of the bakeneko was formed."
When a cat served as a witch's familiar, the witch supposedly merged with the wilderness, and gained the animal's power of perception. Sometimes the familiar served as a human witch's animal twin, or Doppelgänger. People believed that cats had enhanced senses and certainly they can see in the dark where we cannot. Scientists now use their physiological knowledge, paired with technology, to understand how and what cats see. The photos below provide an artist's simulation of what scientists say cats see compared to what humans see in the same environment. Cats see fewer colours, their focus is less distinct, but their peripheral vision is wider.
How we see the world, compared to how cats see it. Photo contrasts created by artist Nickolay Lamm. Image Source: Wired.
Science does not debunk our superstitions about animal senses; it only adds another, quasi-rational dimension to a huge body of myth. Just as fearful people worried in the early modern period that witches could see through their cat's eyes, today small cameras attached to various creatures blur the perspective between the human and animal kingdoms. For example, a camera fixed to the back of an eagle allowed Youtubers to see the world from the bird's perspective, if not exactly as it actually sees the landscape because of its physically different eyes.
The notion that scientists can use gadgets to see the world as a bird or animal does sucks the scientist into an uncertain and fearful realm. The researcher has unwittingly crossed that old, symbolic line drawn between civilization and the wilderness. In the Italian film, Across the River (Oltre il Guado; 2013), an ethologist fixes a camera onto a fox's neck and then follows what it records on his laptop. The moment the ethologist in Across the River fixes the camera to the fox's neck, he becomes symbolically drawn into the animal's world, an alien plane of existence. This is a clever enhancement of a typical horror trope, where a single, bad decision draws a character off the normal beaten path into dreadful circumstances.
The animal cam in this recent and effective horror movie is a clever twist on Blair Witch's amateur camerawork. Where many films over the past thirty years experimented with the camera as an objective third eye which sees things differently from the way the fictional characters and real audience see the story's action, this alternative animal view adds another perspective to that of the character, audience and camera.
Since the late 1990s, scientists at Berkeley have experimented in brain imaging to understand what other animals see and what humans (such as coma patients) perceive. UC Berkeley News Center:
The results are called 'brain movies' in the Berkeley report. By 2011, Berkeley researchers were applying the same technology to human brains, and developing the "brain recorders of the future."Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people’s dynamic visual experiences – in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers.
Cats see us as catlike, creepy-looking versions of themselves. In 1999, a computer recorded what a cat saw when it was shown a clip of Raiders of the Lost Ark in a lab at University of California at Berkeley. The filmed humans that the cat watched appeared, via brain imaging translation, to look much more catlike. Video Source: Youtube.
1999: "Yang Dan at UC Berkeley captures images of what cat sees. ... On the left is the cat's view and on the right a camera." Video Source: Youtube.
1999: "Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have recorded signals from deep in the brain of a cat to capture movies of how it views the world around it. The images they reconstructed from the recordings were fuzzy but recognizable versions of the scenes that played out before the cat's eyes. The team recorded signals from a total of 177 cells in the lateral geniculate nucleus - a part of the brain's thalamus that processes visual signals from the eye - as they played a digitized movie of indoor and outdoor scenes for the cat. Using simple mathematical filters, the researchers decoded the signals to generate a movie of what the cat actually saw." Image Source: UC Berkeley, Tinfoil Hat and Dream Views.
If only they could talk! What would cats tell us? Thankfully, the outcome of that research remains only in realm of fiction. This mystery was explored in a dark story about a scientist at a university who trains a cat to talk, Tobermory (1911), by English writer Saki (1870-1916). You can read Tobermory here and listen to an audio reading of it here.
Incidentally, Tobermory Cat, after supporting a Scottish distillery brand and serving as several incarnations of real-life distillery cats with the same name, has acquired a meta-afterlife as an interactive online artwork meme since 2011. From 2012 through late summer 2014, Tobermory Cat meme generated a raging copyright dispute, and denied all connection to Saki's Tobermory and the real life distillery Tobermories. But come on, cats have nine lives. We all know: it's the same cat.
Traumatized cat in a Russian stairwell. Video Source: Youtube.
One of the most famous feline horror stories is Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat (1843; see it dramatized here and here). But most stories (listed here) about cats involve a fictional sidestep into the bizarre realm of enhanced senses, be they epic, arcane or depraved. Without exception, they refer to anthropomorphized animal abilities and wild, untamed behaviours.
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