Frequent readers doubtless recall that I was in Morocco just over a year ago. One of the cities we visited was Marakesh, which has an ancient but still bustling city center called Jemaa el-Fnaa. Jemaa el-Fnaa is a crazy place; a montage of tourists, shopkeepers, men handling snakes and monkeys, loud music and ever present buzzing mopeds that angrily honk it you if you’re in their way.
What I remember most of Jemaa el-Fnaa is the cats. The place is covered with essentially feral but tame felines who stroll about with a regal arch to their backs*. And here’s the kicker: in every other part of world, cats are quite anxious and flighty creatures. You drop your coffee cup, and the cat on your lap leaps up and runs through three rooms of your house to go hide under the bed. The cats in Jemaa el-Fnaa are quite mellow. A moped might loudly race past a snoozing feline and he’ll barely raise a whisker.
* My most treasured Jemaa el-Fnaa cat memory: I was walking down a back alley and saw a cat eagerly nibbling on a morsel of something. I looked closer and realized he was gnawing on a chicken head.
Say, wouldn’t it be nice if I could tie this observation about cute kitties into the neuroscience/physiology topics I’m always talking about? Well, indeed I can.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” Fundamentally, what the book imparts is a description of the process by which the stress response of animals (including humans) operates. The stress response is basically what fires off when we sense danger or alarm; flight or fight, that sort of thing. So how does this work? You notice a potential danger — say, an approaching cannibal savage — and your body immediately releases adrenaline, making you sharper, stronger, more focused. But your body also releases chemical glucocorticoids which set you up to maintain the sharper, stronger more focused you down the line. Adrenaline is a immediate fix, glucocorticoids are more long-term (the effects can last hours, even days.) In essence, evolution gleaned that when one becomes aware of danger, one should stay prepared for quite a while.
Now, I think over recent times I’ve become fairly aware of what all this feels like. I mentioned how I recently heard some noise in the night and even though I intellectually understood it to be nonthreatening, I still got a minor jolt of adrenaline. And as I go throughout the day, I have a definite sense of how even a subtle but slightly anxious thought can give me a very mild sense of “the tinglies” which I intuit to be either adrenaline or glucocorticoid related. On the flipside, I’m aware how just visualizing a pleasant scene (say, playing with a puppy, or smothering an annoying baby) calms the system down. (Deep breathing is also quite effective.)
So how does this relate to the cats of Jemaa el-Fnaa? One has to wonder about their nervous system. As I’ve mentioned, regular cats scamper away at the slightest sound. Why don’t the cats of Jemaa el-Fnaa? I think what is frightening to regular cats — loud noises, buzzing mopeds etc. — has become unremarkable to these cats. And their nervous system has learned to respond accordingly.