Monkey See, Monkey Remember

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BBC News: “Chimps Beat Humans in Memory Test” Based on test results published in Current Biology, chimpanzees have “an extraordinary photographic memory that is far superior to ours.” The tests were devised by Japanese scientists and pitted university students against three pairs of mother-and-child chimps.

The tests required participants to remember the location of numbers on a computer display, then correctly recall their positions after the numbers were replaced with blank squares. The chimpanzees (including the three five-year-old youths) were taught to “count” to nine for the test.

The young chimpanzees performed better than both their mothers and the university students.

Surprisingly, the young chimpanzees performed better than both their mothers and the university students, who were slower than all three young chimpanzees in responding. Even after the researchers began to vary the amount of time the numbers appeared on-screen, the chimps continued to outperform the students in speed and accuracy.

Lead researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University outlined the significance of the test results. “There are still many people, including many biologists, who believe that humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions. . . . No one can imagine that chimpanzees—young chimpanzees at the age of five—have a better performance in a memory task than humans.”

The most significant conclusion the team made was that the young chimpanzees beat the human contestants even when the numbers weren’t on the screen long enough to be read. This suggests the young chimps have a photographic memory that, the BBC article explains, “allows them to memorise a complex scene or pattern at a glance.” The researchers add that the ability is present in some human children but the ability abates with age.

Emory University chimp expert Lisa Parr, who described the research as “ground-breaking,” adopted an evolutionary interpretation to the research: “They are our closest living relatives and thus are in a unique position to inform us about our evolutionary heritage.” However, Parr (and others who have come to the same conclusion) seem to be ignoring the fact that it was the young chimps (not the mother chimps) that consistently beat the adult students, even though, as mentioned above, photographic memory seems to be present in the juveniles of both groups.

If the human adult’s “photographic memory” is sluggish when looking at numeric images, it may be because of years of reading, rather than merely looking at, numbers. In that case, the human mind is effectively trying too hard, attempting to identify not merely where certain shapes reside on the screen, but trying to apply names and a sequence to the images (that is, adding at least one other part of the brain into the mix). If this is the case, the test is essentially unfairly skewed toward non-reading participants, which may be partially addressed in their comment “These studies tell us that elaborate short-term memory skills may have had a much more salient function in early humans than is present in modern humans, perhaps due to our increasing reliance on language-based memory skills.”

The human mind is effectively trying too hard.

Also not addressed in the BBC article is how much time the chimpanzees had spent practicing the game (presumably with food or other incentives for successful completion) compared to the amount of familiarity the human participants were given before their trials.

Ultimately, what if the chimpanzees have a stronger photographic memory capability than do humans? While certainly surprising, it would in no way show humanity to be ape cousins any more than do other amazing animal capabilities (e.g., birds’ ability to detect the earth’s magnetic field). While more tests will no doubt be fascinating (unless the tests show superior human intelligence, in which case the results will likely get little news attention), the current results offer no particular support for Darwinian theory.


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