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Ruth Wallsgrove - 20 Feb 2018
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"The physiological effect on me is as if he is right in front of me"

My step-daughter just sent me a phone photo of my cat Jojo when she called in to check he was ok. He looks like he’s looking straight at the camera – in reality, he was trying to gaze adoringly into her eyes. It’s indoors, so his pupils are very wide, so he appears not only adoring but also yearning. He looks like he misses me… yeah, right. He does act very happy to see me when I get home, but he doesn’t get what a screen is, let alone a telephone.

But when I look at his photo on my screen, I can feel my blood pressure and heart rate go down. I feel warm and loved. It seems only a few centimetres from giving him a hug and breathing in his remarkably sweet-smelling fur. And hearing him purring, of course. The physiological effect on me is as if he is right in front of me.

Now Jojo would not be similarly affected by a photo of me. Not even me waving and calling his name on Skype. It’s a human peculiarity – some think even the special human peculiarity – that we can read life into two dimensional images.

I am currently staying with my brother and sister in law, and we tend to watch films on their over-large TV in the evenings. My lovely sister in law cries at movies even more than I do. Almost anything on the screen affects her, even though of course she knows the films aren’t ‘true’.

Memories can make me cry: don’t let anyone ever tell you that the brain, even a thought with no current sensory input, doesn’t directly affect your body!  But they are generally my memories. Movies aren’t even that. The music surely helps, but they are not called moving pictures for nothing. We react, we don’t notice the gaps between frames. They work for our human minds.

Jojo is actually doing something interesting himself in my photo. Cats do not look each other directly in the eyes – it’s a hostile act. But they, and dogs, have learned that we humans react well to being gazed at. My brother’s dog knows it’s a great way to beg for food. My husband complains that he can’t resist giving Jojo more Dreamies because “He looked at me.” These animals know.

Humans are intensely affected by faces, especially eyes and smiles. We can understand the emotion of an emoji – two dots and an upcurving line …. We react even to that.

Many other animals can be affected by what they call hyperstimulation. A baby gull pecks at the red spot on its parent’s beak to solicit food. If you put a beakish shape with an even larger red spot in front of them, they will peck at that in preference to a real beak.

It’s not odd that we react to a simplified, hyper-face. What’s odd is that we can see it in the random markings on a cave wall. It does not take much for us to imagine a real face coming through that wall at us.

I look for faces in an abstract wallpaper. A simple set of lines gains a third dimension. A photo invokes hot or cold.

Other animals don’t stare at walls. Wallpaper is completely lost on them, and unless something moves (or perhaps makes a bird or cat noise), they are indifferent to screens.

Perhaps, it has been suggested, we humans even prefer 2D. We like to look out of a picture window onto a landscape. We adore our TVs.

I have this photo of my cat as my phone wallpaper now. It’s guaranteed to make me feel better when I look at it. This image of love – cat-love, and who knows what that really feels like to the cat – acts like – well, love. We are the creatures that paint walls and love screens.

REW x

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