Wiz-kid outperforms his elders

Reports of youngsters outperforming their elders in computers games would not normally be worthy of headline news. Urban mythology is full of amusing tales of grandparents who use their computer CD drawer as a convenient cup-holder, or press the ‘help’ button on their keyboard and sit by the phone for days waiting for a response. But what if the report involved chimpanzees, and not ipod-savvy middle-schoolers with blue-tooth cell phones?

In a new study published in Current Biology (Vol. 17, p1004) Inoue & Matsuzawa found that Ayumu, a 5-year-old chimpanzee, could outperform both his mother, and a group of university students in a computer task designed to investigate working memory. In the study, participants saw 5 Arabic numerals (from a set of 1 through 9) presented in a random location on a touchscreen monitor. The aim of the task was to touch each numeral in the correct ascending order. But, there was a catch. The numbers appeared on the screen for only a fraction of a second before being replaced by a white square; so fast, in fact, that the presentation was ‘subliminal’. Ayumu was quicker and more accurate than either his mom or the humans, demonstrating a phenomenal ability for symbol recall and working memory. The authors discuss their findings in relation to the evolution of language and symbolism.

See Ayumu perform here.

View more video clips from the Kyoto Primate Research Institute website here.

For me, the findings of this study have additional implications for how we conduct comparative studies of cognition. Many cognitive studies are motivated by evolutionary questions about whether other species share the same cognitive abilities as us. However, because such studies are often intrinsically human-centric, they tend to utilize methodologies that inadvertently favor humans while posing handicaps for the apes. However, the studies we conduct at the Living Links Center involve chimps learning from fellow chimps, and in these more natural conditions we find that this is something they are rather good at, in fact so good that they have developed their own distinct cultures. The study by Inoue & Matsuzawa is particularly interesting because it is initiated from an unusual perspective: rather than asking whether chimpanzees can do what we do, the authors have taken a skill at which their chimpanzees were particularly good and then ask if we can do what they do. It seems that when the tables are turned like this, we don’t always come out on top. For me, this study highlights the importance of casting a wide net when searching for cognitive abilities within the animal kingdom. If we only ever study other species to see if they share our cognitive abilities, we may miss important features of their cognition and learn little about abilities we may have lost.

Ayumu trounces British memory champion!

Click here for more studies in which chimpanzees outperformed humans.

Think you can do better than a chimp? Give it a try here!

–Victoria Horner