Baboons Impress Scientists with Word-Recognition Skills
A new study published in the journal Science this month shows that baboons are capable of recognizing words, a skill that’s typically only attributed to humans.
Baboons in the study were shown a variety of four letter words mixed with random sequences of four letters, when they recognized an actual word they would push a blue oval button on a computer screen, or a cross-shaped button for non-words. Whenever they identified a word correctly, they were rewarded with a treat, which was not their main food source.
Six baboons were used in the study and were allowed to walk up to the computer and take the test whenever they chose to.
“What’s really nice about it, there’s no stress associated with testing an animal and putting it into the testing area,” said Jonathan Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France and lead author of the study.
“These baboons are motivated. They are doing this because they want to. … They do it just for fun.”
Grainger, who typically works with humans, wanted to test the theory that reading uses visual systems in the brain that are used to identify objects in order to learn whether animals without linguistics could learn to recognize words, since they don’t have speech capabilities comparable to humans who typically learn sounds first.
After 300,000 completed tests, the baboons chose real words an average of three out of four times, with one baboon named Dan learning 308 four-letter words. More interestingly, they learned through trial and error to recognize which patterns of letters were words and differentiate them from gibberish, even when seeing a new word for the first time.
“It’s not just memorizing,” said Grainger. “It’s picking up what we call these statistical regularities: Certain letter combinations appear more frequently in words than in non-words.”
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