Ever feel like you have the memory of a monkey? Well, as it turns out—you’re probably not even that smart. Even the Japanese researchers were surprised when they pitted young chimps against human adults and the chimps won. Young chimps, it appears, have better cognitive functioning when it comes to short-term memory that college educated humans.
That challenges the belief that "humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions," said researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University.
"No one can imagine that chimpanzees — young chimpanzees at the age of 5 — have a better performance in a memory task than humans.”
Matsuzawa is a pioneer in studying the mental abilities of chimps, but mentioned that even he was surprised. He and colleague Sana Inoue report the results in Tuesday's issue of the journal Current Biology.
One test included three 5-year-old chimps that were taught the order of Arabic numerals 1 through 9, and a dozen human volunteers. Nine numbers were then displayed on a computer screen. When they touched the first number, the other eight turned into white squares. The test was to touch all these squares in the order of the numbers that used to be there.
Results showed that the chimps, while similarly accurate as the humans, were faster.
One chimp, Ayumu, appeared to be particularly gifted. Researchers included him and nine college students in a second test. This time, five numbers flashed on the screen only briefly before they were replaced by white squares. The challenge, again, was to touch these squares in the proper sequence. When the numbers were displayed for about seven-tenths of a second, Ayumu and the college students were both able to do this correctly about 80 percent of the time, which indicates that Ayumu has as good of a short-term memory as human college students.
However, when the numbers were displayed for just four-tenths or two-tenths of a second, the chimp was clearly the champ. The briefer of those times is too short to allow a look around the screen, and in those tests Ayumu still scored about 80 percent, while humans plunged to 40 percent. That indicates Ayumu was better at taking in the whole pattern of numbers at a glance, the researchers concluded.
"It's amazing what this chimpanzee is able to do," said Elizabeth Lonsdorf, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Lonsdorf did not participate in the study, but has participated in other studies focused on the mental abilities of apes. She was impressed with Ayumu's performance when the numbers flashed only briefly on the screen.
"I just watched the video of that and I can tell you right now, there's no way I can do it," she said. "It's unbelievable. I can't even get the first two (squares)."
Also, the difference in skill couldn’t be attributed to “practice makes perfect”. Even after six months of test specific training, three students failed to match the ability of three young chimps, Matsuzawa noted. If anything, a college age human has the clear advantage in terms of having already spent many years engaging in every day activities, which frequently require humans to organize numbers into sequential order. For example, every time you balance your checkbook, locate a building by its number, or peruse shopping isles in the grocery store, to name just a few, humans are putting numbers in order. Chimps, on the other hand, don’t appear to have as much practice or inclination to number everything.
But Matsuzawa does believe there are two factors that might have given the chimps an edge. He, along with other scientists, believes that human ancestors gave up certain skills over evolutionary time to make room in the brain for language abilities.
The other factor is the youth of Ayumu and his peers. The memory for images that's needed for the tests resembles a skill found in children, but which lessens with age. In fact, the young chimps also performed older chimps. So According to Lonsdorf, the next logical step would be to pit Ayumu against some real competition on these tests: children.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
Related Galaxy posts:
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Young Chimp Beats College Students in Cognitive Test: