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Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee?

Young chimps outperform humans in memory test

By Samantha Henderson | December 4 , 2007
A four-year-old chimpanzee participates in memory tests at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute laboratory in central Japan on December 4, 2007. (Photo: ©AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)
A four-year-old chimpanzee participates in memory tests at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute laboratory in central Japan on December 4, 2007. (Photo: ©AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

Are you smarter than a chimpanzee? Almost anyone would be quick to answer "yes." However, in a recent series of memory tests conducted at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, a group of chimps younger than 5 years old outperformed their fellow test subjects—a group of adult college students.

In the tests, the numbers 1 through 9 were displayed on a computer screen for decreasing measures of time. Then, the numbers were replaced by blank white squares. The participants were asked to touch the squares in the order in which they remembered seeing on the screen.

In the first test, which flashed the numbers for about seven tenths of a second, the chimps and humans performed about the same, achieving 80 percent accuracy. But when the time limit for response grew shorter, the chimps came out ahead, maintaining their 80 percent accuracy rate, while the humans' accuracy plummeted to around 40 percent.

"We were very surprised to find this," said Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the Primate Institute. "But it's a very concrete, simple fact. Young chimps are superior to human adults in a memory task."

The tests suggest chimps have a knack for remembering complex images and patterns accurately, which scientists call "eidetic imagery."

A Trade-off

Matsuzawa believes there are two factors contributing to the young chimps' success: their young age, and the fact that they do not know how to speak.

"The capacity of the brain is limited. Perhaps humans gave up older skills [like eidetic imagery] in order to acquire new skills, such as languages," Matsuzawa said.

In other words, test subject 5-year-old chimp Ayumu has superior ability to memorize patterns because a significant amount of his brain space has not yet been taken up by a skill like transferring thought to speech.

Ayumu's youth may be a factor as well. The so-called photographic memory is also found in a small number of human children.

Elizabeth Lonsdorf, director of the Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, suggested the next logical step: Test chimps against kids.


Read today’s story and answer the following question.

Do you think you have a good memory? What activities do you do to improve your memory?

Join a discussion of this question on our bulletin board.

About the Author

Samantha Henderson is a contributing writer for Scholastic News Online.

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