Chimps astound with memory skills
Ayumu the chimpanzee in his enclosure in Kyoto. Photograph: Primate Research Institute
The animated baboon King Louis in Jungle Book wanted to be like a human, but the traffic isn’t all one way amongst the primates. Chimpanzees have something useful for us to covet – an astounding short term memory.
A presentation at the ongoing American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston this afternoon will discuss the latest findings in primate brain power. It will feature the chimp Ai at Kyoto University that has something akin to a photographic memory and will also discuss findings about how chimps can suffer from anxiety attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress, just like humans.
Prof Tetsuro Matsuzawa in Kyoto’s primate research institute is studying the chimp Ai and her son Ayumu and the remarkable feats of memory they can achieve.
He developed a system where the chimp touches a button on a screen and the numbers one through 10 flash up in random order in various squares on a grid. The challenge is to touch each square in ascending order, but as soon as you touch number one all others are hidden from view, presenting a incredibly difficult test of working memory.
This would be a challenge for any of us, having to produce the correct order. How remarkable then that Ai can do the same thing, recognising the numbers and touching them in their proper order. A video documents Ai’s skills and similar skills in her son Ayumu.
Ai, which means love in Japanese, views the grid for no more than half a second and then begins, touching the squares in the right order from one through 10.
Prof Matsuzawa has tested Ayunu with all the numbers up to 19 on the grid and she can still accomplish this with no more than a half second’s glance to memorise the positions. “No human can do this at this speed, at this accuracy,” he said in advance of the talk. “No one can deny that chimps can be better than humans in this task.”
Prof Martin Brune of University Hospital Bochum, Germany will discuss chimp psychopathology during the session. Recent research has shown the complexity of chimp social structures and language capabilities, but has also revealed conditions such as anxiety attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress. He will suggest that it may be time to treat these conditions in chimps kept in captivity in the same way they are in human primates, with psychoactive drugs.
Dr Victoria Wobber of Harvard University will make comparisons between human and chimp cognition in problem solving, decision making and risk taking. “We have found a number of new areas where they (chimps) make decisions that parallel those made by humans,” she said.