How Cat Memory Works

Cat memory works in much the same way as memory in any animal. Past experiences or events can be stored in the neural connections that make up an animal's brain. When information is perceived by the animal through the use of the sensory organs, electrical signals are transmitted via the nerves to the brain, allowing the animal to incorporate the information in calculating actions. Once encoded into the brain, this information can be stored in the neurons that make up the brain. The exact mechanism by which specific memories are stored in the brain is not yet known, but there are some widely accepted theories.

Specific Neuron Theory

The first theory as to how memories are stored in the brain of a cat is that specific neurons are assigned to specific memories, which would mean that there is one cell in your cat's brain that activates when the cat sees you, and another cell that activates when the cat sees its food bowl. In fact, if the specific neuron theory holds true, your cat not only has a cell specifically adjusted to respond to his food bowl, but another cell for each other bowl the cat has ever seen.

This theory has not been conclusively disproven, but many experts consider it a little simplistic. Some people point to the fact that cats can still form new memories after they stop forming new neurons as evidence against the specific neuron theory, but this inconsistency can possibly be explained if neurons could change the stimulus that they respond to, or respond to multiple stimuli.

Combination of Neurons Theory

The more modern and widely held theory on how the memory in a cat works is that memories are stored in a combination of neural connections, rather than just one neuron. Each neuron in the brain responds to a particular characteristic or pattern in the stream of raw information coming from the sensory organs, and certain objects or events are recognized when the right combination of neurons are all activated simultaneously.

For example, when the cat sees a human face, one or a few nerve cells in his brain will respond to the curve of the mouth, one or a few neurons will respond to the spacing of the eyes, and some will respond to the color of the hair. When a cat sees a new object that he does not recognize, the combination of neurons that respond to that object are connected to a single other neuron, which will be activated when the cat sees that object again (recognition). By assigning a single neuron to activate the same combination of neurons that would respond to a specific sensory stimulus, the cat can record information about that stimulus into its memory.

Because a cat has a smaller, less complex brain with fewer neurons in it than the brain of a human, a cat's memory does not work as well as a human's memory. The average cat can only retain tactile or visual information for ten minutes in his working memory, and can only learn to recognize a few places and objects, whereas people can retain a wide range of information almost indefinitely. Despite these differences, the basic mechanism of memory is the same.