Monday, July 20, 2009

What's the Cat Hair?

A few months ago I began a weekly clinical group that meets for 90 minutes each Monday and focuses on how to help children and families who have been traumatized.
This week I am readily sharing information that I think is both helpful and fascinating. It's about play.
Almost all young mammals, including humans, play. Why is that? In a nutshell, most social scientists believe that play is a way to feel joy and is very very important in how well young mammals evolve.
So in 1998 a neuroscientist named Jaak Pansepp conducted in depth studies on young rat pups at play in their cages. He observed them initiating rough and tumble and clearly enjoyable play with each other for four days straight.
On the fifth day, he introduced a minimally threatening stimulus into their environment: a hair from a cat. He left the hair in the cage for only 24 hours and then removed it.
Guess what happened to the rat pups' play after the cat hair was introduced and then removed?
It is important to realize that these experiments were conducted with lab rats. They had never actually seen a cat. So here's the scene: the young rats are happily playing for four days. On the day the cat hair is introduced, play completely stops. Even after the cat hair is removed, play never returns to the level where it was before the time the hair was introduced.
Here's the question: what happens when a signal of danger is introduced, even briefly, into their environment?
Here's the answer: it changes everything. And like these rat pups, if you happen to be really young or really vulnerable, it can mean that life is never the same again.
What an interesting question: "What's the cat hair?" Because if there is a single cat hair in a person's environment and it is not addressed, nothing else is important until it is no longer a threat. It makes no sense to try to fix anything else or expect someone to attend to anything else if there is a signal in the environment that represents a threat. The actual cat hair may be long gone, but unless you know you're safe, any number of events or "triggers" can simply and fully get in the way of play--get in the way of joy.
So in difficult times, it makes sense to ask, "What's the cat hair?"
For me, this is an easy question to remember, an apt way perhaps of thinking about what gets in the way of living a happy playful life.
So how about it: What's the cat hair?


  1. Very interesting. For me at the moment it is not feeling well ... good health is very important for sound playing. Hopefully will be feeling back to myself soon and able to play again!

  2. oh kj this is really good, it actually ties in with a post i wrote earlier today.
    ...and by posing the question to me at the end of your post I have realised in a very simple way that this year has seen me living with a veritable furball wrapped around me. Posed in this manner I now understand so much more clearly the fear that I have felt lately.
    thank you

  3. WOW.... I can totally see what happens to children or even adults when there is a threat even after the threat is gone....

    I sure know that happened to me and all I can say it WOW....

    Thanks so much for posting that.

  4. Wow, that really explains a lot and is something both adults and kids can relate to.

    I have taken a lot of animal behavior classes and have learned so much raising kittens into cats, their play never ceases to amaze me and how free and fun it is...but as adults how mean and serious it can be.

    Watch this video on YouTube of my current kittens playing and you will see how they play before "the cat hair" which kind of makes me laugh but cats are very astute to scents and often one that visits the vets will be attacked by the ones left at home, until it smells like "home" again.

  5. Very interesting and good observation by both scientist and you.

    Nice to hear that you are working for traumatized children. Well done!

  6. wow!! What an awesome experiment.. sure it ruined things for the rat pups.. but the post set me thinking and thinking... am not sure what my cat's hair is.. but guess anything that is a threat.. remains for a while..we do go ahead after a while and start playing again.. but it takes a while..

  7. For most people it is not a cat hair but a cat hairball.

    I am not the therapist but I am often told by people what the hairball is and to be honest, at times I wish I was never confided in about child sexual abuse, beatings, overt continuous non acceptance and berating and general terror perpetrated on people that stop their emotional growth at whatever age the hairball was introduced.

    My own hairballs were destroyed when I finally came to believe the truth of "fuck it."

  8. Well - this is very interesting! I was always of the opinion of "it's gone - why should you worry" but this makes me understand that when "the cat hair" shows up, you're right...we change. I can think of a few cat hairs that I'd like to remove...

  9. That's a great observation. Wow.
    Some people have the attitude (for those of us covered in cat hair) that we should just 'get over it.'
    I just want to say "What a great idea! I wish I'd thought of that!"
    If only it were that simple to let go of the fear and damage of past cat hairs.
    I thought I'd let go of most of mine by forgiving. It's funny how those fuckers show up in other ways disguised as eating disorders, alcoholism, panic disorder blah blah blah.
    All we can do is work on it,

    Great, thought provoking post KJ!


  10. I love this post. Play. I read a lot about it when I worked in daycare and nursery school and have always been an advocate of play as therapy for both children and adults. Good question: where is the cat hair. But also i would wonder what you think about how play can help balance the pain of the cat hair fears and threats.

    I remember when there was so much stress in the family re: me and my husband my son would often play with his male dolls (GI Joe etc) and use them to interact with each other and i felt work out some of his own anxiety around his mom and dad's distress.

    Even today for myself when feeling overwhelmed or threatened by a cat hair, i find if I can remember to play i relieve my stress greatly. Of course as you indicate the problem must also be faced head on and looked at/discussed and worked out in a direct manner. But play can perhaps also lead us to the way to do that. I dont know. just a few thoughts.

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  12. it ss as if you had a sever trauma while being a kid.being faced with a cat hair for a rat.

    I do find the question interesting also about what is the cat hair?, cause it reminds us
    all the everything depends on the context. Meaning is in the context mostly.

    bye bye

  13. Great post and great explanation! I had a therapist once prattle on and on about peeling the layers of an onion, as if the issue was hidden deep inside....LOL. Sometimes it IS just cat hair on your sweater, but if you ignore it, it doesn't fall off.

    Ok, prattle wasn't nice. I do like the cat hair analogy much much better!

    And Lolo, you are sooooo right on. If things WERE really that easy, we'd all be rocket scientist skinny ass millionaires. But life isn't like that. Ugh, and I'm just realizing I use my perfectionist streak as an excuse not to start....crap crap crap. Self revelation is a pain sometimes.

  14. Wow, what a powerful post!

    For me the cat hair was Mr. Death. By the time I was 10 years old I had seen my father, grandfather, 4 cousins (2 double funerals---tragic car wreck around Christmas time), 2 uncles and an aunt buried. The older folks weren't so bad but seeing the 2 children buried probably affected me for many years. After my father died unexpectedly when I was 6, I used to get up in the middle of the night to check to see if my mother was breathing. I was in my 20's before I realized how seeing so much death affected me. (I still don't like Christmas-time, recalling those two double funerals).

    Great food-for-thought post!!

  15. like marion, one of my hair balls is also death...sigh i have quite w few hanging round me...great post. xxxxx

  16. That's an interesting approach !

  17. Wow. I wouldn't have thought something so very simple would have interrupted play but you're right, I guess the threat doesn't even have to be that great to instill some sort of fear. In all seriousness, I probably have a few cats hairs but I think I have learned to 'get over it'. Mind you nothing as traumatic as childhood abuse. I was very lucky that way.

  18. This is very interesting.
    In what manner can our lives be influenced by something we are maybe not consiously aware of.

  19. Interesting. I actually have a few cat hairs, but seem to still play, I wonder why, maybe the cat hairs don't seem as threatening as they used to...

  20. I think once you've gone into wary mode, it's difficult to return to a level of feeling safe. I like the cat hair metaphor because given my intense allergy to cats and yet equally strong liking of the creatures, it's easy for me to over-look what should be sending off danger signals. Or something like that, it's late. :)

  21. kay, please feel better soon. and please let me know when you do so i won't worry on your behalf. xoxo

    sweetsweetmango, i know what you mean. me too. but don't forget i have a mad crush on you if that helps.... :)

    pattee, thank you for your comment. it's nice to see you here.

    teri, you know so much about animal behavior. your comment is fascinating. why do you think adult cats give one another such a hard time? do they always?

    shubhajit, thank you very much.

    how do we know, now when i'm working with kids i look for the cat hair. was it when he saw his mother get beaten by her boyfriend? or when she was left alone at 3 years old? or when her brother died? it's helped me alot to think this way.

  22. walking man, it is often hard for me to hear some of the abuse and neglect people have suffered. even at age 50, the pain is still vivid. i am intrigued by your last sentence, "the truth of 'fuck it'". i probably agree with you, but i want to hear more.

    mim, do you know i am very fond of you? your comment just reminded me of that fact... :)

    lo, oh yes! i HATE whenever anyone says 'just get over it' for any reason. the only exception is if i've said the same thing and bitched about the same complaint for more than 75 times. :)
    and how true that the cat hair shows up in other forms. you are one wise woman, lo!

    suki, i've decided for the most part to 'play' with my clients all summer, and not just the kids. we're doing clay and coloring while we talk. it has been just great. it's good to love some form of art so much, isn't it, because we get to play at it so naturally?
    ps nice to hear from you. xo

    mariana, ususally i follow your comments but this one is a bit more confusing. tell me more please?

    debra kay, i couldn't help reading your comment and thinking of that expression "perfect is the enemy of good." and then i remembered this wonderful instructor at weight watchers who's say "perfect isn't coming today. perfect didn't leave the station today..."

  23. marion, what you described is definitely a cat hair. how incredibly hard and scary that must have been then, to be six and worried like that. thank you for sharing this. and thank you for becoming a blog regular for me. i'm very glad to get to know you.

    sweet soulbrush, your loving sensitivity cuts both ways. xoxo

    hildergarde!!! how wonderful to hear from you. don't forget to email me one of these days, okay?

    baino, i think you have your own way of dealing with challenges and i admire you more than you'll probably ever know. xoxo

    peterbie, frightening until you start to understand and then freeing...

    annie, thankfully it's not that you have to be afraid forever. and what a gift to know how to play and not be afraid to do just that!!

    "it's easy for me to over-look what should be sending off danger signals"
    oh sweet jesus, cs, this is so me too! xo

  24. Hi Kj, such a great post, really helps me understand why we get serious and stop playing. Thank you for sharing this. Such great news to read what group you are helping in.
    We really need play.Have a great week KJ!
    Thank you for your visit, real nice to hear form you.

  25. Let me explain but remember this is in context of my own life and is not something one can just say to another person. that would sound like "just get over it."

    I was moderately sexually abused by an older boy, there was no penetration but there was contact. I was about 7 he was about 13. On top of that I was never accepted as anything other than a clown with a target on his back by my peers and a dunce by my father. And my mom was ok but I think she was continually disappointed because I didn't follow the same achievement level as my siblings.

    At 17 I got away, enlisted. I had been choking on my hairball for well over a decade by then which led me to some pretty fun (oh yeah those were the days)substance abuse.

    But instead of turning the anger inward I turned it out. Once I grew as tall as I was wide I became a mean motherfucker ready to throw down faster than any hockey player who just took a cheap shot.

    At about 16 God came a callin, yea at first it was that Jesus freak bullshit God loves me because the bible tells me so, but all the time I was fighting and fucking up my way through life I was also becoming more introspective.

    More able to travel back down the line of my memories and look without pain or passion at every incident that scored my soul. It may sound as if I was doing this in a conflicted way because I was drinking like a fish, working like a horse and meeting all my obligations and fighting with every soul who wished to put them up. Either physically or attitudinal *shrug* whichever was fine by me.

    I've had guns in my face five times and never backed down (still won't) because I had developed faith that no matter how fucked up I was, God still has my back.

    Eventually I got to the point where I was able to stop caring about the past, all of it both good and bad. Fuck happened and nothing will change any of it, not one second of it can be turned into something other than what it was, so simply fuck it. Nothing killed me and God has my back.

    Then came the forgiveness, first forgiving myself for accepting responsibility for the actions of others and then the others themselves.

    Don't misunderstand me and think I have gone all soft and touchy feely KJ, I haven't. I do not suffer fools easily, I still prefer my own company over that of any other but if it is warranted I can go out and be sociable and sober. (quit drinking ten years ago and recreational drugs about 25, works for some but AA never helped me. I went through a
    ten day voluntary and never went back. I was putting away a little less than a fifth in about four hours every night)AND I can enjoy myself in social situations. But like I said I prefer alone.

    So in short I realized that I am only alive one heartbeat at a time and that is sufficient for the heartbeat that I am alive...everything else, past and future...fuck it. It really doesn't mean anything to me, the past isn't real anymore, memories can do me no harm and the future isn't real either.

    I took the time to try to look at all who abused me while standing in their shoes and eventually realized that for the most part they were following their own learned behavior, in other words; they may have known better but they were Pavlovian following their keys and giving responses programmed by whatever fucked them up. It was easier to forgive them once I understood their reasons.

    I don't particular want anything I don't have and I have everything that I want...the rest, wealth, power, fame, fuck it, how is any of it going to improve the one moment I am alive? For the past forty years I can honestly say that any need I have ever had has been totally and completely met by God.

    It's been a hell of a ride. I have a life and I am living it the way I want. Someone doesn't like it "fuck 'em"

    Is that the answer you were expecting? if not fuck it, it's the only one I have.

  26. Ooo, i love this!! One of the things I'm passionate about in my parenting is letting the kids PLAY. They have their chores and responsibilities, but kids (and adults) don't play enough these days and there is *so* much that brings fear into our lives. I heard a report the other day that talked about a study that looked at the amount of play (lack of fear) an adult had as a child as having a huge affect on the acting out, trouble, crime in they were involved in as a teen-adult.

  27. Walking Man~I loved reading your story. I've read hints of the same on your blog before.
    I wasn't referring to you (BTW)as one of the people who expects us to 'get over it.' Just fuck it is altogether different and I agree with you. What's done is done. God has had my back all my life too. I don't consider myself religious in a traditional way but I know the way I conduct myself and treat other people is probably seen as okay by the big guy.
    Anyway,I didn't mean to get off track here. I just wanted to let you know my comment wasn't aimed at you but I also know you weren't worried about it ;)

  28. Wow that's interesting
    too bad so many have experienced these "cat hairs"
    I think of all this misery in the world, no one seem to be able to get rid of the hairs........
    Wonderful post!

  29. This is interesting, but immediately when you spoke of baby rats playing my mind was off to when we had baby bunnies. Have you ever seen baby bunnies play? They dart and zoom and practice changing directions very quickly. Makes me laugh every time.

    I desensitized myself to all the cat hairs in my life. I put them in a book up on the highest shelf and now I never take them down to revisit. "Sometimes you have to leave the past in the past to have a future". (Ice age cartoon)
    Happy weekend! Love, Deb