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Image: Baboon in French study
J. Fagot via Reuters
In a French study, six Guinea baboons learned to distinguish real, four-letter English words such as "done" from non-word combinations such as "dran."
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updated 4/12/2012 2:38:35 PM ET 2012-04-12T18:38:35

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 wheat.

Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading — identifying recurring patterns, and then 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.

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

Pattern recognition
Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders, and what they are doing may be what we do first when it comes to 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 cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.

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

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.

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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.

'Extraordinarily exciting'
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.

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"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."

Using words without language?
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 words, 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 took the 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."

More about animal communication:

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Monkey see, monkey read?

Explainer: The world’s 10 smartest animals

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    We humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're self-aware, and we're also conscious of the presence, thoughts and feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception. We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence. Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of intelligence — but they generally agree that humans are highly intelligent.

    Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of degree - a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put "Homo sapiens" on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click ahead to learn about nine other species that stand out for their smarts.

  • Chimps are almost like us

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    If we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools, hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed better than humans on a number memory test.

  • Dolphins get creative

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    This dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter. Scientists say that's just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on to the idea.

  • Elephants exhibit self-awareness

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    The sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

  • Cephalopods have big brains

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    Are octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That's a matter of scientific intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus, but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control to eat.

  • Crows get crafty

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    Crows are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic, but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added protection and more food.

  • Squirrels can be deceptive

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    Is the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own scent from predators.

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    Are dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes — an indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

  • Cats are adaptable

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    Like dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500 years - even the hoods of cars.

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    Here's the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.

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