Don’t make a monkey out of me: Chimps top humans in memory tests

What are you looking at smarty pants?: So you humans think you're smarter than me, huh? Well I dare you to challenge me in a memory test. Common, I dare you.
What are you looking at smarty pants?: So you humans think you're smarter than me, huh? Well I dare you to challenge me in a memory test. Common, I dare you.Courtesy deVos
Next time you’re having a short-term memory crisis, like trying to remember where you last put your car keys, try to think more like a chimp.

At least that’s a conclusion you can draw from the recent study done by Japanese researchers. Young chimps outperformed human adults in a two different tests of short-term memory abilities.

Here’s what happened. Researchers used three 5-year-old chimps that had been taught the numeric order of the numerals 1 to 9. They also had a group of a dozen adult humans.

Participants saw the nine numbers displayed on a computer screen. The moment that they touched “1,” the other numerals turned into white boxes and the participants had to touch those boxes in numeric order.

While there was no difference in the accuracy of the task between chimps and humans, the chimps could do it faster. And chimp Ayumu was by far the best, so researchers pitted him against humans in another task.

In the second test, the numbers 1 to 5 flashed briefly on the screen and then changed to white boxes. Participants again had to touch the boxes in the order of their corresponding numeral.

When the time between number and box was set at seven-tenths of a second, both Ayumu and the chimps were accurate about 80 percent of the time. But when the time between the flash was cut by one-third or one half, Ayumu was still accurate about 80 percent of the time while the humans dropped down to 40 percent.

In even further testing, three humans were given six weeks of training on the number flashing tests, but still could not catch up to the speed or accuracy of the chimps.

Here's a link to a collection of video footage of the chimps and humans doing the memory tasks.

The researchers think there are two main factors accounting for this significant difference between chimps and humans.

1) Through evolution of our brains, humans have developed language abilities that have squeezed out some brain processing for short-term memory like this tests gauge.

2) Young humans might be a fairer test against young chimps. Memory of images and shapes is skill more often found in children, but diminishes with age. In further testing, the researchers found that young chimps were better at the tests than older chimps.

The conclusion I’m drawing from all of this – I don’t want to square off against a young chimp in a game of Concentration, that’s for sure.

What do you think about all of this? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Here's the link to the USA Today story on this research project.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Can these results really be considered accurate? After all, I doubt these chimps underwent the years of exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and other more elicit drugs that our college youths have to endure. See, apples and oranges.

posted on Wed, 12/05/2007 - 5:57pm

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