At Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute, a chimpanzee named Ayumu is performing a task that is impossible for a person to do, revealing how chimp cognition can mirror -- and in some cases surpass -- the capabilities of the human brain.
Sitting in front of a computer monitor that briefly displays the numbers one through nine in a random pattern, the chimp touches the number one. The remaining digits are immediately hidden behind white squares. But Ayumu can touch where each number was, in ascending order - 2, 3, 4, and so on. People cannot remember the location of more than a few numbers.
At the annual meeting in Boston of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa showed a video demonstrating Ayumu's extraordinary working memory. He suggests that although humans cannot match that skill, we don't need to, because we have language.
"Chimpanzees are so good at memorizing things at a glance. We are not so good at memorizing things at a glance, but we can see the things and perceive the meaning of what we see," he says.
Other research presented at the AAAS meeting, highlighting the similarities between primate and human minds, found occurrences of human-like depression, post-tramatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders among captive great apes. These studies have helped fuel a growing movement to stop using primates as research subjects, or at least to put new ethical guidelines in place to protect lab primates from cruel or inhumane treatment.