Miss Otis Regrets

Once upon a time, a friend of mine had a cat — and I think that the cat, had she been a person, would have been certifiably crazy.  She used to race around the apartment at break-neck speed, until she eventually miscalculated on a turn or a stop, and ran head-on into a door or a bookcase or something.  The cat’s name was Miss Otis, after the Cole Porter song, Miss Otis Regrets.

I thought of Miss Otis today when I saw, on the New York Times Web site, an article by John Tierney from the Science section, “In That Tucked Tail, Real Pangs of Regret?”.   Tierney discusses some recent research on the degree of consciousness that animals have.  Traditionally, the view was that consciousness was a uniquely human characteristic, not possessed by “dumb animals”.  But more recently, we’ve seen increasing evidence that some of those animals are not so dumb, after all.   For example, crows have been observed to use tools, and also to make them.  I remember being told, when I was much younger, that my dog could not understand  words, and could only respond to my tone of voice.  Yet there is good evidence that at least some dogs can learn to retrieve specific objects by name (for example, “Bring the keys”). Our dog certainly knows how to “Find Grandma”.

Tierney reports on some  recent research that seems to show that at least some animals can feel something like the human emotions of remorse or regret:

When a coyote recoiled after being bitten too hard while playing, the offending coyote would promptly bow to acknowledge the mistake, Dr. Bekoff said. If a coyote was shunned for playing unfairly, he would slouch around with his ears slightly back, head cocked and tail down, tentatively approaching and then withdrawing from the other animals. Dr. Bekoff said the apologetic coyotes reminded him of the unpopular animals skulking at the perimeter of a dog park.

There is some objective evidence that there is some real part of the animal’s cognition that is being activated:

The latest data comes from brain scans of monkeys trying to win a large prize of juice by guessing where it was hidden. When the monkeys picked wrongly and were shown the location of the prize, the neurons in their brain clearly registered what might have been…

Of course, this is a long way from being able to understand how this feels to the dog, or to the monkey.  (It is perhaps just as well for our self-esteem that our dogs don’t keep diaries or blogs to record their impressions of life.)  It is possible, particularly in the case of dogs, which as a species have been closely associated with humans for so long, that the “regretful” behavior is just a learned response:

When we see a dog slouching and bowing, we like to assume he’s suffering the way we do after a faux pas, but maybe he’s just sending a useful signal: I messed up.

I’m not sure how that question can be resolved, but I think this research adds to the growing body of evidence that we are not nearly so different from other animals as we might like to believe.   But Tierney suggests at the end of his article one question that probably will never be answered: Do pet cats ever regret anything?


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