Chimps Outpacing Humans in Short-Term Memory Tests

on May 17, 2008
Featured in News to Know

Chimps are seen outpacing humans in a computer-based mental challenge in a National Geographic News video.

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Japanese researchers have devised a computer game that requires a quick short-term memory to successfully complete. The surprise? Five-year-old chimpanzees accomplish the game’s task more quickly and more accurately than college students.

The project is at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, led by primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa, which houses 14 chimpanzees. The chimps were taught to recognize the numerals 1 through 9, then coached to participate in the computer game where the numerals are displayed for a split second, then covered by identical boxes. To beat the game, the participant (chimp or human) must dispatch each box (by touching it) in numerical order (based on the numbers hiding beneath the boxes). Chimps are rewarded with food and verbal praise.

One of the chimps reportedly was accurate 80 percent of the time or more, whereas a doctoral student taking the test had an accuracy of only 10 percent. Furthermore, all the chimps have this ability, not just some or one.

The game is testing photographic memory (also called immediate memory or, more formally, eidetic memory). Matsuzawa suggests that while chimps have strong photographic memory, humans “may have lost such a kind of capability in the course of evolution.”

Thus, the London School of Economics’s Nicholas Humphrey can claim, “What [the research] has taught us is that we have probably descended from animals which had much better memories than we do currently … why did human beings lose their memories?” The evolutionary hoop-jumping in the answer is astounding: why would natural selection favor a reduced memory capacity? Humphrey explains, “With too good memory, we wouldn’t have had the incentive to develop language.” In other words, as the National Geographic News video narrator explains, losing our memory forced us to develop abstract thoughts and concepts.

Consider at least two lines of complaints we give here against this conclusion from the research. First, regarding the research methodology, it wasn’t clear from the video that the training or incentives for the chimps to play the game as opposed to the humans playing the game were identical. Presumably, the humans’ livelihood was not contingent on success at the game, and perhaps the humans had less time to practice and train; thus, it could be the chimpanzees were more highly motivated to perform well. Likewise, whereas the ordinary human memory is filled with millions of facts, memories, skills, etc., if memories of the captive chimpanzee are relatively untapped they may be more absorbent of such a special activity—like a prisoner in solitary confinement might quickly master an otherwise difficult game.

Second, even if chimps’ photographic memory was more acutely attuned than humans, would this indicate evolution? Certainly not. There are numerous animal capabilities superlative to human capabilities (think of the speed of a cheetah, for instance), and none of these overturn the clear portrait of humans made in the image of God. Human dominion, language use, civilization, and relationships with God are all reminders of that—and the proof is in Genesis chapter 1.

Would chimps beat human children of comparable development in this game?

One last thing that the video sneaks in near its close: though “all chimps have this ability,” as the video’s narrator reports initially (at ~1:56 in the video), apparently some of the chimps were actually worse than the human attempts. The narrator reports that the skill needed for the test is similar to a skill in human children that fades with age. “In fact, the young chimps performed better than older chimps in the study. [The mother of a chimp that scored better than 80 percent accuracy] did even worse than the college students.” So perhaps we’re not even comparing bananas to bananas here: would chimps beat human children of comparable development in this game?

Creationists are fascinated with the life God created, including animals. Research into the created kinds and the amazing features God has endowed them with helps us understand the world around us and God’s creativity and ingenuity. With such incredible life forms, who needs such strange evolutionary stories and spin?

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