We are in that place in society where, we have a lot of time to think about the important questions in life. Inquiries about the enigma of our existence such as “Do I really exist?” and “Do I have a purpose?” are typical thoughts that fill our everyday routine. Since the world was subdued by the pandemic, we are forced to face the tough questions like “Does God exist?” and the follow-up “If there is a Higher Being, why are all the bad things still happening?”
And yes, that’s just because it’s Monday yet again. Of course, more practical musings on the stability of our current jobs, relationships, and our health also take up a huge chunk of our concerns. But one question, despite the chaos all around and basically the world burning, still remains to this day… Do cats dream?
Ah yes, the timeless question regarding the possibility of our feline friends dreaming is yet to evade our curiosity. We all know that cats like to sleep, and sleep they do for most of the day. When they aren’t wandering the confines of their home or chasing birds, mice, and cockroaches, cats simply lay back and doze off. Just like that, their world also returns, quite contently to slumber.
But do cats dream as we, hoomans, do? Do their clever minds produce stories that their dream-selves play out while asleep?
And most importantly: what do they dream about? Do they dream of being naked and ashamed even though in their waking hours, they are actually naked and feel no shame at all? Can mice and cats be friends in a feline’s dream? Are you in your cat’s dream?
Let’s unravel this yarn of curiosities.
A Chinese tale
Once upon an ancient time, the gods bestowed cats the power to oversee the human world. During this period, when the world was brand new, only cats could speak, which make them superior to humans. Alas, even then, cats could not be bothered with unimportant matters, and so they chose to sleep instead of following the order of the gods.
When they weren’t off dreaming, they spent their days fabulously playing. Three times, the gods visited the Earth, and three times they frowned upon the cats’ willful neglect of duty. Upon confrontation, the felines confessed that they did not really care for such things, and thus, the power of words were transferred to humans.
Unfortunately, this is not where the tale ends. Even with the gift of speech, humans still could not understand the language of the gods. And so, the responsibility of keeing order in our world and tracking time was still in the paws of the cats.
To this day, it is still believed that one could tell tile by looking at a cat’s eyes.
Much like their human counterparts, felines who once basked in the glory of being regarded as higher beings and belongings to royalty also had their downfall in history.
As Christianity rose in Europe in the 13th century, cats were among those unfortunate to be vilified by the Papacy. Since cats were associated earlier as symbols of and therefore belonging to paganism, they were also affected by the Church’s vehement rebuke. Soon, they were linked with demons and witches – creatures who could influence good people into doing evil, entering their minds and dreams to corrupt them and cause them to sin.
Black cats were most demonized as they were labeled as Satan’s minions. Many were said to be slaughtered on a regular basis in the hopes of extinguishing the whole of their land. Not much after their purge, a pestilence that took the lives of over 25 million people came over Europe: the bubonic plague.
Though no clear evidence showed the link between the decrease of cat population and the increase of rat propagation, it would not be farfetched to wonder what would have happened if all those innocent felines were spared and allowed to dream of a few more lives.
In the afterlife, Egyptians believed that they would be as they were in the previous life. This led to the process of mummification – of preserving the body so that all the parts and organs would still be intact and ready for the next life. In order to reach the other side, the dead’s spirit must be a diligent and well-prepared voyager. This was why loved ones buried important belongings with the mummified body so that these materials could assist the spirit’s journey into the afterlife.
Sometimes, the deceased used to live with a cat. And when the cat also dies, he accompanied his human in the journey, which was why cats were also one of the few animals who were mummified during this time.
One could say that the deceased spirit is in some kind of dream state after death, a sort of limbo between their previous life and the afterlife. The feline companions buried with their humans were hoped by the living to help the spirit reach their destination, and hopefully be reborn and given a second chance at life.
According to literature, when people dream in their sleep, a part of the brain that controls movement also goes to sleep. It is said that consciousness is the only thing not idle during this dream state, where the brain is more active, much life it is during our waking hours. One could wonder how close the Egyptians’ notions of the afterlife journey is to this stage in slee where the only thing awakes a person’s mind.
Since Egyptians revered cats so much, it would not be strange to think that people believed that cats could traverse many dimensions. And maybe, just maybe, cats were almost god-like that they could also inhabit the plane of dreams, even those of humans.
What dreams may come
Until the 1950s, we knew so little about dreaming. Of course, in ancient times, dreams were believed to be a way to communicate with the gods, foresee the future, and make meaning out of mundane matters. To this day, the theatrics of why we dream and how we dream aren’t much clearer, which means that there is more that we do not know on the topic of dreaming, especially in animals.
Here’s what we know so far: During the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of our sleep cycle, our brain shuts off a part of itself that allows us to move our limbs so that we don’t act out our dreams. Yes, we’ve had dreams were we wander off, run, or even fall, and turning off this function is the body’s way of self-preservation. This stage is the deepest level of slee for us, which is why it is difficult to wake up during REM, even if we were having a nightmare.
Evidently, cats cal also reach this stage on their sleep cycles. This means that cats do dream. But how do cats dreams? Is it different from how we do?
Chasing phantom prey
Clinical psychologists Dr. John Clines states that cats also enter the REM stage the same way humans do. Their eyes also flutter and roll. In some instances, it has been observed that their limbs jerk and spams. Cats also moan and meow in their sleep.
Unfortunately, unlike us, cats can’t tell us what they’ve dreamt about. Though dreams perform the same function for us as with cats – body recovery and the processing of accumulated information – we can’t know for sure what they dream about.
A groundbreaking study by Dr. Michel Jouvet in 1959 showed some interesting findings when atonia, the loss of muscle function during REM state, was negated in the brain. Cats began to act out what was happening in their deepest stage of sleep. They raised their heads, hissed, and even arched their backs, according to a 2015 article published in the National Geographic. Scientists surmised that the cats may have been seeing something in their dreams, perhaps a prey they wanted to chase and hunt down.
It seems that they, too, were in some kind of complex narrative induced by their kitty minds.
Nine lives, nine flashbacks
Cats’ experience of the world is different from ours. We can only assume that our dreams are more complicated than theirs since all they do is eat, sleep, and sleep some more.
If sleeping and dreaming are ways for the body to process information and remove excess memory to make space for more, then maybe our cats also dream of us. Although that is a nice thought, we do not know how our cats see us in their dreams. Is it boringly close to reality or are we villains to their heroes? Maybe we are slaves in their dreams and they are the masters; maybe they dream of an endless supply of kibble or a horde of mice waiting to be caught between paws.
If cats are believed to have nine lives do they reminisce some of these memories from past lives and play them out in their dreams? Cats do have sharp recollection. Maybe they carry resurrected souls from different eras, hence the notion for having multiple lives.
And what if these souls remember their forgotten realities? Do cats dream of a time where they ruled over humanity? Do they remember guiding past hoomans into the afterlife? Or, maybe they dream of how they escaped death during the witch trials and survived the plague… That, we can only wonder about and speculate.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s March-April 2021 issue.