People are not cats

I was having a conversation with some friends the other day, and one of them wondered aloud why human sexuality is so weird. She pointed out that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the vast array of psychological, cultural and aesthetic responses to this same basic instinct that we all share.

That prompted me talk about cats. In particular, I sketched out for my friends my own (admittedly quirky) theory of human sexuality which is based on the way that cats walk.

I had read a research paper several years earlier that described what has been learned about how cats know how to walk. It turns out, not surprisingly, that if a cat’s cerebrum is seriously injured to the point of being non-functional, the cat will simply sit in one spot all day long without moving, like a living statue.

However, if you give the cat a push, or drop it from a height onto the floor, the cat will walk, run, leap, land on its feet, and make all of the other graceful locomotive movements that cats make. So here you have an animal that moves with masterful balance, grace and precision, all without benefit of a working cerebrum.

It is clear that these capabilities reside not in the cat’s cerebrum — the most high level and general purpose part of its brain, and also the most recent to have evolved — but rather in its cerebellum, a part of the mammalian brain known to be essential for motor coordination.

But here is where it starts to get interesting. In known cases where a human is left with an essentially non-functioning cerebrum (eg: due to a massive brain tumor), the human, like the cat, will remain immobile and non-responsive indefinitely. However, if you try to get this poor individual to walk, he or she will just fall over. No human cerebrum, no human locomotion.

What seems to be happening here is that whereas the cat’s abilities of locomotion and balance (which are substantially better than ours) evolved over a very long period of time, becoming “hard wired” in the cerebellum, our movements as bipeds evolved much later, after the cerebral cortex had already evolved to be quite large. Consequently, for humans the process of learning to walk and to balance involves a lot of participation of the more general kind of unsupervised learning that goes on in our cerebrum.

Practically this means two things. First the bad news: We will never be able to run and jump as well as cats, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how long we train and practice. Now the good news: We humans are capable of learning varied ways to move our bodies that are far outside the capabilities of the feline brain. People regularly learn intricate sports moves, exotic dances, techniques for playing musical instruments, and other physical skills that lie completely outside any particular movement that might have been “wired” into the evolving prehistoric human brain. In effect, we don’t get to be the ultimate specialists precisely because we get to be the ultimate generalists.

Which brings us back to sex.

My theory is that the human brain responds to sexuality in much the same way that it responds to the need to walk and reach and balance. Rather than react to sexual desire by going through a predefined sequence of behaviors, every individual human learner makes use of that powerful engine for unsupervised learning – the cerebrum. Each one of us develops, with the help of the very highest level of our brain, a highly individual set of responses and coping strategies for dealing with this powerful emotion.

Which, arguably, tends to make certain aspects of life a lot more interesting for humans than it is for cats.

2 thoughts on “People are not cats”

  1. … and also explains a lot of disgraceful behaviour 😉

    Thanks for the post, it was a good read!

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