Sonic Kitty

A question from the 18th century for you.

If this tree is standing in this park and there is no-one around to be aware of it, does it exist?

It started with Irish-born philosopher George Berkeley in 1709 as a thought experiment; in his book A Treatise Concerning The Principles Of Human Knowledge. Berkeley had a novel take: everything out there in the world is just in our mind. To be, he said, is to be perceived. Of course the tree doesn’t exist if I’m not there to see it, silly.

Others followed where Berkeley trod: William Fosset’s Natural States (1754) reads: “To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example.

“If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course.”

Ah: other than what the cats make of it all. Just so.

This morning, at a quarter to six in the morning, the cat walked in shouting.

The cat always walks in shouting. She does nothing but shout. She is a scold; and an empty tummy is something about which humans should be reprimanded. She rapped us sonically on the knuckles.

In the bed next to me, Phil groaned. He knew there would be no peace until he had answered this call worthy of any gorgon. We might mollify the cat with a bit of stroking, and even elicit a low purr, but she would return very soon to the piercing yowl specifically designed to torture our eardrums.

It is almost as if she knows the right frequency with which to distress us.

Which is clever, because there are many frequencies to choose from. Nestling in our inner ear is a veritable organ: a chamber filled with fluid ready to receive vibrations from the outside world. Thousands of hairs, arranged in neat rows, sense the movement in the fluid and convert it into electric signals which they send to the brain using those useful little messengers, neurons.

Is Kit-Kat playing the organ like a virtuoso?

The academics would have us believe so. Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson have concluded that meows are just for humans. The cats have watched us disturbing the 18-20kHZ sonic neighbourhood for millennia, and they figured they could get stuff done if they followed suit.

But to assume that Kit Kat is limited to this crowded stretch of the frequency scale would be to join the tree-in-the-park gang. Just because we’re not aware of it doesn’t mean to say it’s not happening. Cat’s ears can detect sound waves at anything from 10-60kHz.

So while the human schmucks lumber sonically around there’s a whole world of communication going on out there.

It would explain the phenomenon best described by author Terry Pratchett as ‘cat chess’.

He wrote about this in The Unadulterated Cat: “You think it’s just found a nice spot to sun itself until you realise that each cat can see at least two other cats.

“Moves are made in a sort of high-speed slink with the belly almost touching the ground. The actual rules are a little unclear to humans, but it would seem that the object of the game is to see every other cat while remaining hidden yourself.”

Dr John Bradshaw of the Bristol Veterinary School says cats go where human cochlea fear to tread, to have their private conversations. When it’s dark; when two cats are separated on their home ground; a mum talking to her kittens: all are occasions when ultrasound is de rigeur.

So: if  Kit Kat makes a witty social sonic observation and we are too darned dense to perceive it, did  she make the observation?

One fiery stare from this unsettling animal would indicate that yes, you had better believe she did.

It brings to mind a recent discovery by Marissa Ramsier of Humboldt State University in California.

Her work concerns adorable little furry night creatures with the hugest eyes from the Philipines, named Tarsiers. They have for millennia been perceived as utterly, gently silent.

They’re primates, related to us: yet they share traits with lemurs. And when they are fully grown they are about the size of a man’s fist.

Ramsier and her team used recording equipment to pick up ultrasound frequencies way up there beyond human hearing in the 70s and 80s kHz.

Fact is, the tarsiers are shouting their heads off.

Just way beyond our sonic ken.



Picture courtesy of TarsierUK


62 thoughts on “Sonic Kitty

  1. Visiting you Kate is like drinking at the “fountain of all knowledge”. This suggests there is a realm of non human communication – something like the world wide web?

  2. There is indeed a world of sound out there of which we shall never partake. This just fascinates me and I have to learn more about cats especially. Thanks again, Kate, for the illumination.

  3. Act chilly, this has volumes to say about human conceit and stupidity, doesn’t it? We can’t sense it: it doesn’t exist. Of course it does. It is just difficult for us to accept that fact, individually or as a species. George was Berkeley-ing up the wrong tree, is all. I suppose he was right in one respect – the durability of cats. He tacitly accepted that they are the rulers of the universe.

    1. You’re right, Col 🙂 And you’re right about his wrong tree, too. We have been human-centric for a very long time: it is only now we are beginning to hear those extraordinary conversations we have never encountered before, through the technology we have today.

      Quite a privilege, really. To begin re-evaluating our place in the universe.

  4. Ooooo, what a marvelous children’s story it would be about the secret life of cats (or is it already a children’s story that I don’t know about?). They are in their own secret society with their own language until some human, a boy, starts to hear what they say. Sigh. I haven’t had enough sleep this week. An intriguing post, as usual Kate.

  5. I like Lou’s term “illumination.” You have become an Illuminators-in-Chief for me. I never fail to learn something when I read here.

    Yesterday, I mentioned parallels, and this morning, just after reading your post, I read Charles Payne’s commentary at ( and found: “. . . sensed their rights fading but has missed the degree because of all the finger pointing and NOISE (emphasis mine) that makes day to day life like watching World Cup soccer in Johannesburg. The noise and the sales job simply weighs on people to the point that they either completely tune out or succumb. . .”

    There is noise, and then there is noise — we would do well to pay LESS attention to that noise which is man-made.

    1. Very good point indeed, Karen, and great link as usual, thank you. Tuning out the noise of the world is, I feel sure, one of the key ways to be happy, and settled, and even serene. It is almost impossible in today’s world of information gluttony.

  6. If Ted and Cat got together, I dread to think the consequences! Lovely post! Very interesting 17th century thought, at what point do we realise, ” we” didn’t think of it first! Hah! Sleep in tomorrow if possible!

  7. We have two cats (mother and son) and I’m fascinated by the thoughts of them having conversations we can’t understanding. (And probably saying: if only the humans could hear. Poor things.)

  8. We humans like to think we’re the be all and end all of all that is – am I going too far? 😉
    My own ears fail to pick up on all the frequencies they did when I was younger – does that mean those frequencies have gone out of range for the rest of humankind too? (What power!) 😀

  9. And yet my really wonderful husband misses each and every subtle communication cue…I will share with him what I now have learned about a cat’s instinctual ability to communicate and be heard in return!I have an Anthropologist friend who spends large periods of time in Madagascar and Vietnam studying Lemurs…years of study! What we don’t know is more impressive to me than what we do! So interesting, Kate! Debra

  10. What a daft philosophy, Kate.
    If I ask you to meet me at the third tree along the road, or a specific pub,
    it isn’t two places according to our imaginations.
    What ever was the bloke thinking of???

    Love Dad

    1. There is a defence but I haven’t the heart or passion to outline it, Dad. Suffice to say it tickled my funny bone. People have lectured me over that perception stuff in management colleges for years.

    1. How fascinating, Pseu!

      I’m darned sure the mice can hear the cat!! The lone mouse that ventured into our house since we’ve been here, surely spread the word that he’d met the resident cat!! So far as we can tell, neither that mouse nor any other has dared to enter here since! 🙂

      1. they are so amazing, now we hve learned to record down in tehir part of the wave spectrum. i just wish we could understand elephant thought/communication

  11. I wonder if your ’18th Century’ question is not significantly older than that? Anthony Burgess wrote of musings in Shakespearean times about whether a cat really existed between leaving the house and returning. Given the depth of Burgess’ research into most things that he has written about I have to assume that this was born out of something that he found whilst researching for his book ‘A Dead Man in Deptford’. Of course, in more recent times and in a thought experiment it becomes ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ and becomes a key part of the Quantum Physics debate. Fascinating how these thoughts promulgate through history! Another great post Kate 🙂

    1. Thanks, Martin 🙂 You are right: the “perception is all there is” business has been rumbling on at least since the Greeks, I believe. I can only trace the tree back as far as Berkeley, though…I love the idea of Burgess musing on what happens to the cat when it leaves the house. Fantastic 😀

  12. I drift into this way of thinking at times, Kate, well, I think that when I go to sleep at night everything stops existing, until I wake the next morning. I tend to catch myself out, however, when I wake at 1.30 to nip to the loo! But seriously, it is an interesting thought. Do things exist when we aren’t there to see them? In the same breath, has history actually happened – or has it happened the way we have been told? A lot of things are based on our opinions, and what we think about them, rather than the facts themselves. The sky could come crashing down in places where there are no witnesses to it – and we would be none the wiser.
    And Kit-Kat. I love reading your Kit-Kat posts! I always think about Spudley the Cat when I read about Kit-Kat! Only Spudley doesn’t scream at the top of her voice… she walks – slinks casually is more like it – up to us, looks us in the eye and says “Wewwo” She’s still learning English! 🙂

    1. She sounds a far more refined cat that ours, Tom 😀 I love your comments on the shifting sands of history. Defining what is real and what is not – it’s a tricky business…

  13. Fascinating. Is this why we think cats are telepathic? They are actually letting us know 4 houses early that they are coming home? They’re using those special frequencies. Imagine…we think we are so clever!

  14. More wonderful writing 🙂 The arrogance of a human to believe that something doesn’t exist if we are not aware of it – ha! The tarsia is a fascinating creature, very badly treated by humans, some of whom think it is an evil creature that needs to be killed. My daughter claims to be able to hear our dog whistle (which blows at a range that humans cannot hear) – I’ll have to do a little experiment.

    1. Children- and especially asthmatic- are supposed to be able to hear higher frequencies, Gabrielle….i haven’t thanked you yet for that wonderful link on your site. Still listening through in the moments I get to myself. A fabulous programme from Tony Attwood, thank you!

  15. Hey that is a great post!! So much to really think about in there, Maybe Mary’s cat really does have a voice but it is on a frequency i cannot hear, for which i have to admit i am grateful. White Cat has enough voice for everyone! c

  16. Thanks for this, Kate.

    Sometimes Tigger opens his mouth and “cries” but no sound comes out. Now, I suspect that he did make a sound, which he alone heard.

    Fascinating to contemplate.

  17. this is why I love dogs – a simple five more minutes command and they go back to sleep for hours 🙂 I read something the other day, hopefully my tired brain gets it right “if a husband shouts at his wife in a forest, will she hear?”

  18. Your post reminds me of something in a book I’m reading, ‘Corvus’ by Esther Woolfson, in which she talks about a rook that lived with her and she goes off at a tangent on various lines of research. One such line was about research done on crows (which I’m not happy about on behalf of the birds) in which they discovered that they have more cones in their eyes than we do. Well, if that’s so then they can probably see a larger range of colours than we do – which makes me think that maybe ‘all black’ birds aren’t black at all (ditto all white, all grey, etc). So much for our human arrogance and limitations.

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