There’s nothing like a new cat video—or a favorite old cat video—to distract most people from the waiting piles of paperwork and long to-do lists. But what is it about watching our furry friends that reduces stress, literally reducing tension in the body?
The key may be in neurons that minutely activate muscles when watching or imagining an activity. While these are often referred to as motor neurons, it’s not really something accomplished by specific neurons, but a function of how our sensory-motor system works. This is how elite athletes improve performance. When watching videos or mentally rehearsing an event, the brain imagines the movement and the body pretends, on a subliminal level, that this activity is taking place.
When we watch a cat with all its muscles relaxed, moving only the muscles needed, does that help us relax? I think so, and I think that it teaches us how to move more efficiently, only contracting the muscles that are necessary to accomplish a task. When we see a cat swat at an alligator, do we feel powerful and get a surge of adrenaline and pride? That would explain why these videos are so addictive. Watching animals crawl through boxes, climb into bowls, or do anything to avoid getting a bath gives our bodies a mini-taste of the variety of movement we used to enjoy as children.