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The Ultimate Animal Experience? Losing A Memory Quiz To A Chimp

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 12:00 PM

Time to be embarrassed. You're about to be bested by a young chimpanzee in a memory test.

Many have tried to outperform Ayumu (that's the chimp's name), but when you see how easy it is for him, how matter-of-factly he gets things right, it's clear he's got a talent that's built in. It's not a talent you'd expect a chimp to have, but, hey, this isn't a trick. Nature isn't pro-human or pro-chimp. It's just nature.

Tetsuro Matsuzawa/Primate Research Institute/AP

So here's the deal: You will see a screen. A bunch of numbers between 1 and 9 will flash on, but you will see them for less than a second. They show up in scattered spots, here, there and very quickly (650 milliseconds later for beginners, even faster in advanced versions). They will then be covered by little gray patches. You won't see them anymore.

Your job? Remember which numbers were where, and touch the white patches in ascending order: 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, etc.

If you're intimidated, don't be. It's not easy to beat this chimp. It's best to just watch.


Kees Geluk/YouTube

How'd he do it? Well, says science writer Virginia Morell in her new book Animal Wise, "it's impossible to track each number's position with one's eyes; you had to take in the entire pattern with a single glance." And yet, "Ayumu nearly always got the sequence right. His success rate was close to 80 percent."

Photo-Flash Memory

This tells Japanese scholar Tetsuro Matsuzawa "that he has an actual picture memory, an eidetic memory. ... He takes a picture with his mind and holds it." Even if he turns away from the screen to do something else, the information stays in Ayumu's head. "You and I," says Matsuzawa, "we cannot do this. ... It is something special for the chimpanzee mind. It is not a matter of training for them. It is their way of seeing the world."

Ayumu learned his computer skills sitting on his mother's lap, watching. She is also a laboratory chimpanzee and has a computer of her own. Her son didn't interfere, didn't touch the keys. When Professor Matsuzawa gave him a little computer with a small touch screen, he explored it, but cautiously.

"The mother does not offer any explanation. And her child, the apprentice, learns by careful observation," the professor says. But over time, he's gotten good. Is he exceptional? Will he stay this sharp when he's older? We won't know till we've tested many other chimps. But for a species that grows up in dense forests, where food is hiding in plain sight, a photographic memory might be very useful.

Don't Tell Me I'm More Stupid Than A Chimp

Still, his performance leaves lots of people feeling uncomfortable. "How does he do that?" writes one YouTube reader. "I can barely see the numbers flash. ... I am more stupid than [a] chimp. Why God, why?"

"This is not helping anyone," writes another. "It's decadent and it's wrong," writes someone else. "That's a million times better than I can ever do."

"Well it's official. I am dumber than a chimp," says one more.

Even scientists got upset. "You must see this," Matsuzawa told Morell, holding a science publication in the air. "In it," he told her, "the authors say that humans 'with practice' are as good as chimpanzees at our memory test."

But why bother? Why would a bunch of scientists go to the trouble of training themselves to best a chimp?

"Really, I cannot believe this," Matsuzawa said. "With Ayumu, as you saw, we discovered that chimpanzees are better than humans at one type of memory test. It is something a chimpanzee can do immediately, and it is one thing — one thing — that they are better at than humans.

"I know this has upset people. ... And now here are researchers who have practiced to become 'as good as' a chimpanzee!' " he told Morell. "I really do not understand this need for us to always be superior in all domains. Or to be so separate, so unique from every other animal."

We are just members of the animal kingdom, he says. Talented, to be sure, but not always Best. We should get over ourselves.


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Comments [4]

Cathy Baylor from Lynnwood, Washington

Chimps are better than us at alot of things, not just this. We know their physical strength beats ours ino dust. Probably the only thing we can do better than them physically is jog long distances. There may be other things they're better at as well, that simply haven't been addressed here. Let's ask Jane Goodall. Perhaps she is aware of social practices they have that we could learn from!

Apr. 24 2014 12:17 PM

How are they trained to press the proper sequence of numbers? We know that 2 comes after 1, but how are they taught that?

Apr. 23 2014 08:21 PM

Correction : not race but species !

Apr. 23 2014 02:44 PM
Xqua from Harvard, Boston

Hahaha !
Humans and their pretention to beat other race !
As if we were different !
Enventualy we are just animals, yes we have capacity that other don't !

If we look at bacteria they outperform us in a lot of domains ! They are amazingly resistant, efficient and can pass down there genes a lot faster !

But I guess humans only care when it come to the "only" thing we think is unique : Our brain.

Well, maybe it is time to step down of our pedestal and start to accept that maybe we are not so unique as we think we are ! (cf : the Lucy show, and many more studies)

We are but one set of genes in an amazingly complex ecosystem full of other set of genes !

Apr. 23 2014 02:42 PM

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