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How to Think Like a Cat

blackcat1I’ve written before about the brains of dogs, so as a cat lover and “parent” of many wonderful felines, I felt it was time to focus on our other “best friend,” the cat. In my opinion, cats are probably far smarter than we generally imagine; they simply don’t exhibit intelligence in ways that are meaningful to us.

Why should this matter to adult learning professionals? Read on and you’ll see.

Cats are Motivated by Fun, not Praise

You are probably familiar with the term, “herding cats.” It usually refers to trying to manage chaotic events.

It was once assumed that cats are less intelligent than dogs because it is much harder to train them to do tricks. We now understand that cats are not motivated by the same things as dogs. Dogs will work hard to earn a human’s praise, while a cat is much more interested in having fun; thus you can train it to do all sorts of things if you can make the behaviors interesting for the cat.

cat play

The Feline Cerebral Cortex is More Developed

cat brainThe cat’s cerebral cortex, the center for rational thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, is more developed than the same center in dogs, with almost twice as many neurons in a much more complex arrangement. This fact may explain the results of some experiments indicating cats exhibit better short-term memory than dogs. Cats also have a unique approach to long-term memory: They hold relatively little in long-term storage, but those things that they do remember can be retrieved years after the original learning took place. In other words, once they learn something, never forget it. The cerebral cortex of cats also exhibits an almost constant state of alpha mode, a brain wave pattern believed to indicate empathetic and intuitive thought in humans and other animals – valuable traits in any organization!

What Does All This Mean to Adult Learning Professionals?

So what does this mean to us, as adult learning professionals? What if we are failing to leverage the full potential of our learners because we aren’t accounting for differences in brain function? For example, is the “low performing” employee really a poor performer or just a cat brain trapped in a dog-oriented culture? Could it be that we have simply failed to motivate this particular employee with our standard approach to learning and performance?

kitten eyes

My advice is to watch for the cat brains in your organization and experiment with different ways to reach them. For example, your tried-and-true game show quiz may not be as universally motivating as you think. Statements like “We all want to move up in the organization” may turn off employees who are not motivated by advancement and stature, but seek fun in the workplace.
You may not be able to herd cats, but you can help them be themselves, and that should be more than enough.


Click here to purchase Margie’s book, “Brain Matters: How to help anyone learn anything using neuroscience.”

Margie Meacham

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