Baboons show ability to distinguish between real, fake words
WASHINGTON ó 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 that itís not a word. Correct. Next comes ITCS. Again, not a word. Finally KITE comes up.
He pauses and hits a green oval to show itís 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 wheat.
Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading Ė identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.
The study shows that readingís early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought, and it indicates that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.
ďTheyíve got the hang of this thing,Ē said Jonathan Grainger, a French scientist and lead author of the research.
Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders, and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.
Itís still a far cry from real reading. They donít understand what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.
In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about 75 percent of the time, according to the study published in Thursdayís journal Science.
Four-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 thatís how we humans also first learn to read.