See Dan read: Baboons can learn to spot real words

Apr 12, 2012 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This undated handout photo provided by of Joel Fagot, and the journal Science shows Dora during a readng experiment. French researchers are showing that baboons can do what is essentially the first step in reading. They can identify recurring patterns _ in English. This study is important in two fields: It shows that the early steps in reading are far more instinctual than scientists first thought and it also demonstrates that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for. Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and it's more than memorization. What they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words. But it's still a far cry from real reading. The study is in the journal Science. (AP Photo/Joel Fagot)

Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it's not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word. Finally KITE comes up.

He pauses and hits a green oval to show it's a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried .

Dan is part of new research that shows are able to pick up the first step in reading - identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.

The study shows that reading's early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought and it also indicates that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.

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"They've got the hang of this thing," said Jonathan Grainger, a French scientist and lead author of the research.

Baboons and other are good pattern finders and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.

It's still a far cry from real reading. They don't understand what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger, a at the Aix-Marseille University in France.

In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about three-out-of-four times, according to the study published in Thursday's .

The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.

The baboons are rewarded with food when they press the right spot on the screen: A blue plus sign for bogus combos or a green oval for real words.

Even though the experiments were done in France, the researchers used English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.

The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as SH but not FX, said Grainger. So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real.

Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to recognize patterns and objects, and perhaps that's how we humans also first learn to read.

The study's results were called "extraordinarily exciting" by another language researcher, psychology professor Stanislas Dehaene at the College of France, who wasn't part of this study. He said Grainger's finding makes sense. Dehaene's earlier work says a distinct part of the brain visually recognizes the forms of words. The new work indicates this is also likely in a non-human primate.

This new study also tells us a lot about our distant primate relatives.

"They have shown repeatedly amazing cognitive abilities," said study co-author Joel Fagot, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Bill Hopkins, a professor of psychology at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, isn't surprised.

"We tend to underestimate what their capacities are," said Hopkins, who wasn't part of the French research team. "Non-human primates are really specialized in the visual domain and this is an example of that."

This raises interesting questions about how the complex primate mind works without language or what we think of as language, Hopkins said. While we use language to solve problems in our heads, such as deciphering , it seems that baboons use a "remarkably sophisticated" method to attack problems without language, he said.

Key to the success of the experiment was a change in the testing technique, the researchers said. The baboons weren't put in the computer stations and forced to take the test. Instead, they could choose when they wanted to work, going to one of the 10 computer booths at any time, even in the middle of the night.

The most ambitious baboons test 3,000 times a day; the laziest only 400.

The advantage of this type of experiment setup, which can be considered more humane, is that researchers get far more trials in a shorter time period, he said.

"They come because they want to," Fagot said. "What do they want? They want some food. They want to solve some task."

Explore further: Green spaces don't ensure biodiversity in urban areas

More information: Science: http://www.sciencemag.org

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User comments : 18

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axemaster
3 / 5 (4) Apr 12, 2012
Even though the experiments were done in France, the researchers used English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.

I read that, and then I began to cackle evilly...
kaasinees
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 12, 2012
please teach me fake words.
Cybilseyes
5 / 5 (3) Apr 12, 2012
Moar monkeys doing stuff nao
Bookbinder
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 12, 2012
Why does this stuff astonish us? Is there some fundamental difference between humans and other primates? Not really. SO why do we presume that what goes on in their heads is fundamentally different from what goes on in our heads?
aroc91
3.3 / 5 (7) Apr 12, 2012
Why does this stuff astonish us? Is there some fundamental difference between humans and other primates? Not really. SO why do we presume that what goes on in their heads is fundamentally different from what goes on in our heads?


Their lack of advanced civilization and knowledge isn't a fundamental difference? Chimpanzees aren't going to space any time soon.
Tangent2
3 / 5 (4) Apr 12, 2012
"They come because they want to," Fagot said. "What do they want? They want some food. They want to solve some task."

With a name like that.. who needs women? Poor bastard must have been beaten through school.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Apr 12, 2012
"They come because they want to," Fagot said. "What do they want? They want some food. They want to solve some task."

With a name like that.. who needs women? Poor bastard must have been beaten through school.

Actually, Tangent2, the baboon would have dismissed that as not a real word, unlike you.
NickFun
not rated yet Apr 12, 2012
When I look att certain translation of, say, Chinese words I think "not a word". I guess I don't get my treat!
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2012
Why does this stuff astonish us? Is there some fundamental difference between humans and other primates? Not really. SO why do we presume that what goes on in their heads is fundamentally different from what goes on in our heads?

We know that from a purely psychological standpoint, they're a lot healthier than us.
epsi00
not rated yet Apr 12, 2012
Why does this stuff astonish us? Is there some fundamental difference between humans and other primates? Not really. SO why do we presume that what goes on in their heads is fundamentally different from what goes on in our heads?


Their lack of advanced civilization and knowledge isn't a fundamental difference? Chimpanzees aren't going to space any time soon.


Maybe they do not need to solve virtual problems. Animals solve real problems they are faced with in real life much better than we do. Just tell me how many humans will survive in the forest on their own. How many can grow their own food? or can build their own shelter? Every bird builds their own nest.
aroc91
3 / 5 (2) Apr 12, 2012
Why does this stuff astonish us? Is there some fundamental difference between humans and other primates? Not really. SO why do we presume that what goes on in their heads is fundamentally different from what goes on in our heads?


Their lack of advanced civilization and knowledge isn't a fundamental difference? Chimpanzees aren't going to space any time soon.


Maybe they do not need to solve virtual problems. Animals solve real problems they are faced with in real life much better than we do. Just tell me how many humans will survive in the forest on their own. How many can grow their own food? or can build their own shelter? Every bird builds their own nest.


Humans were around before we were building skyscrapers or growing our own food. Just because we've grown out of those things doesn't mean we're incapable of them.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.5 / 5 (38) Apr 12, 2012
This goes a long way to explaining how George Bush Jr. managed to pass as a person.
A2G
1 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2012
Was there an effort to determine if the apes truly recognized the words by changing the fonts? A human child can still read the word even if the font is changed. Did they try this with the apes?

Or was this just a pattern recognition experiment?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2012
I read that, and then I began to cackle evilly...

The language of science tends to change every now and then. First it was latin, 1700 until late 1800s it was french. Until the early 1900s it was german and in some disciplines russian (e.g. mathematics). Nowadays it's english. Probably going to be chinese in a few decades.

Language tends to form thought to some extent, so it's not a bad thing to switch up languages every now and then.

Chimpanzees aren't going to space any time soon.

Monkeys were in space three years earlier than man was. How's that for going to space without actually making any effort of their own? Pretty clever.
Au-Pu
1 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2012
aroc91 should move to Tennessee, he could even become Governor. It is incredible just how ignorant some people can be and in their ignorance they see themselves as somehow superior. What a monumental self delusion.
Vendicar Decarian your comment has certainly hit the mark. Thank you for that. I had always wondered about George W. For a while I wondered if he might have been a hand puppet. But you have solved that for me.
Tachyon8491
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2012
Something really paradoxical here: surely these primates have a "base reference" which in our human case is a lexical inventory acquired by experiential consciousness. Where do they get theirs... surely not by studying encyclopedias. Do they have a parallel, isomorphic, internalised "pronunciation" of visually recognised patterns to allow them differentiation into "word" and "non-word"? How did they build their initial, neurologically embedded (remembered) reference framework? Is this purely based on operant conditioning reward-feedback of "food means word" which in repeated operations begins to form a pattern-recognition matrix? Would love to know more about the formative dynamics of these experiments. Then again, as concerns spelling, syntagmatisation and syntax, some monkeys appear more capable than the ever-more common semiliterate internet troll...
aroc91
not rated yet Apr 17, 2012
aroc91 should move to Tennessee, he could even become Governor. It is incredible just how ignorant some people can be and in their ignorance they see themselves as somehow superior. What a monumental self delusion.


Nice ad hominem. It was quite relevant. There's a huge difference between using tools or having a rudimentary language and knowing how those tools work. Is there any evidence of apes besides humans performing abstract thought? Do they philosophize? Self reflection and advanced critical thinking skills set us apart from all other animals by a huge margin. An octopus can open a jar, but it's millenia away from being able to manufacture that jar.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2012
surely these primates have a "base reference" which in our human case is a lexical inventory acquired by experiential consciousness.
Translation: they learned some words the way we do...
Do they have a parallel, isomorphic, internalised "pronunciation" of visually recognised patterns to allow them differentiation into "word" and "non-word"?
Translation: ah I cant translate this as it is nonsense.
Is this purely based on operant conditioning reward-feedback of "food means word" which in repeated operations begins to form a pattern-recognition matrix?
Translation: do they do it for the food?
Would love to know more about the formative dynamics of these experiments.
Well why dont you visit the link?
Then again, as concerns spelling, syntagmatisation and syntax, some monkeys appear more capable than the ever-more common semiliterate internet troll...
-As well as posturing pseudointellectual philo types like yourself?

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