Pets and People Addicted to Dots of Light

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Every morning my cat paws at the hand mirror on the dresser until I use it to bounce a beam of morning sunlight around the room for her to chase. The internet hosts an abundance of videos of cats and dogs going nuts for laser pointer beams. Why do pets obsess over light beams?

Animal behaviorists believe the dots’ rapid, random movement trigger the animals’ predatory instincts and spurs them into an ultimately fruitless chase. Although it may seem obvious to humans that big differences exist between a laser dot and a mouse, people shouldn’t feel so superior. The most advanced ape on the planet falls for the same trick.

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In an experiment, psychologists instructed people to watch the movement of dots of light on a screen and report when one of them disappeared. Most of the dots moved by simply bouncing around like in the old video game Pong. However some of the dots moved randomly, as if they were alive. People noticed when those “living” dots disappeared sooner than the Pong dots.

Considering how much time many people spend fixated on dots of light moving in life-like patterns, i.e. television, these results don’t surprise me.

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For pets, the ultimately frustrating chase of laser dots can be psychologically harmful.

“They can get so wound up and driven with prey drive that once they start chasing the light they can’t stop. It becomes a behavior problem,” Nicholas Dodman, professor of animal behavior at Tufts University told Live Science. “I’ve seen light chasing as a pathology where they will just constantly chase around a light or shadow and pounce upon it. They just spend their whole lives wishing and waiting.”

Spending one’s whole life wishing and waiting, staring at dots of light…once again I think of television. Research on television addiction suggests dancing lights can fixate humans just as they do pets.

IMAGES: Tigra the cat chases reflected light (Dania Wall)