Extraordinary Animals - Tuesday January 29

extraordinary animals
the memory chimp (7/7)

Concluding tonight is the documentary series that profiles a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. Tonight’s film focuses on Ayumu, a seven-year-old chimpanzee living in a scientific research centre in Japan, whose amazing abilities are changing the popular perception of chimpanzee intelligence.

Having been born in captivity, Ayumu has lived all his life in Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute (PRI) and seems to thrive in this manmade environment. His love of mischief means that he is often the centre of attention in his group but, for the scientists who study him, it is not his energy that makes him special. Ayumu has been taught how to use a computer and partakes in a series of tests designed to measure his intelligence, the results of which are changing the way scientists regard chimpanzees.

The story begins 30 years ago in the African forests where wild chimpanzees live. It is here that Ai, Ayumu’s mother, was born. At the age of one, Ai was taken to the PRI –one of the most important centres for chimpanzee research in the world –and placed under the care of Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Most of Ai’s time is spent in a giant play area carefully designed to represent the chimps’ natural environment. However, this area is attached via tunnels to the PRI’s research building –and it is here that Ai has her lessons. Using a touch-screen computer and a reward system, Ai has been taught how to count and recognise a number of English letters and Japanese characters.

Ai’s skills have earned her a place in headlines around the world, along with her own website and a role in a Japanese TV series. To writer and anthropologist Carol Jamie, Ai is a real star. “Chimpanzees like Ai are ambassadors to the species,” she says. “These clever captive chimps help us humans understand that they really are extremely intelligent and deserve to be understood.” But Ai is not the only animal allowing for such inter-species diplomacy –the campaign is now being led by a new generation of chimps.

When Ai gave birth to Ayumu in 2000, scientists were keen that the young chimp would follow in his mother’s footsteps –but rather than learning directly from them, he would learn from Ai. The first breakthrough came during a teaching session when Ai was distracted, allowing Ayumu access to the computer screen. Having watched his mother perform the same tasks, Ayumu immediately began to identify colour patterns and was soon counting as well as Ai. His case fascinated researchers who wanted to find a way of tracking the development of his mind. “I really wanted to know the chimpanzee mind,” says Professor Matsuzawa. “How do chimpanzees see this world? How do they think?”

In order to discover which abilities are common amongst humans and chimps, Matsuzawa developed a game to test one of the basic abilities of everyday human life –working memory. The numbers 1 to 9 were randomly scattered across Ayumu’s touch screen. After a few seconds, the numbers would disappear leaving empty squares. Ayumu would then use his working memory to touch the squares in numerical order –something he managed with 90 per cent accuracy. To show how remarkable this skill really is, the director of tonight’s film, Chris, sits the same test, and only manages one correct sequence in 30 attempts. “It’s really very, very difficult,” he says.

Dr Nick Newton-Fisher, who works with chimps in the wild, is not surprised by Ayumu’s skills. “Chimps may have particular cognitive abilites that are different and maybe, in some aspects, better than humans,” he says. But Ayumu’s remarkable talents do not stop there. In a further test designed to explore his eidetic memory, more commonly known as photographic memory, Ayumu was able to remember number sequences having only seen them for a fifth of a second. Not even British memory champion Ben Pridmore is capable of this. “I’d rather not be seen on TV doing worse than a chimpanzee at a memory test,” he says. “I’ll never live it down at the competitions!”

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  • HALUA

    i think its a ridiculous idea so say chimps are more clever than humans when these chimps have been practicing the same thing daily for years and then asking a human to practice working memory on the spot.

  • Bee

    They tested average humans as well as average chimps. To compare with Ai, they tested Ben, an expert known for his memory. Ai won, and the average chimps had a higher percentage of right answers compared the the average humans. As far as chimps being more clever than humans, I think cleverness is like beauty- in the eye of the beholder 🙂

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