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Chimps Top Humans in Number Recall

They beat out college students in tests involving digits 1 through 9, scientists say

MONDAY, Dec. 3 (HealthDay News) -- It may be a case of monkey see, monkey do better - a new study finds young chimpanzees beating human adults at remembering numbers.

A team of Japanese researchers compared three pairs of mother-and-child pairs of chimpanzees who had learned how to identify the numbers 1 through 9 against university students who did a memory test involving numbers.

The chimps and humans were briefly shown various numbers from 1 to 9 on a touch screen monitor. The numbers were then replaced with blank squares. The chimps and humans had to remember which number appeared in which location and touch the squares in the appropriate sequence.

The young chimps performed better on the test than either their mothers or the humans, according to the study, which is published in the Dec. 4 issue of Current Biology.

"There are still many people, including many biologists, who believe that humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions," researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University, said in a prepared statement.

"No one can imagine that chimpanzees -- young chimpanzees at the age of 5 -- have a better performance in a memory task than humans," he said. "Here we show for the first time that young chimpanzees have an extraordinary working memory capability for numerical recollection -- better than that of human adults tested in the same apparatus, following the same procedure."

The young chimps' skill in remembering numbers is reminiscent of "photographic memory," the ability to retain a detailed and accurate image of a complex scene or pattern, Matsuzawa said. This is known to be present in some human children, but then declines as they age.

The researchers concluded that the young chimps' ability to perform better than humans on this memory task is "just part of the very flexible intelligence of young chimpanzees."

More information

The African Wildlife Foundation has more about chimpanzees.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, Dec. 3, 2007

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