Scientists Say Baboons Can Tell Difference Between Real Words and Nonsense Words

Posted on April 12, 2012

Baboon Word Test

Researchers have found that baboons can tell the difference between real printed English words (such as KITE) and nonsense words (such as ZEVS). Jonathan Grainger of CNRS and Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France and colleagues studied a group of baboons living in a fenced-in area that included booths holding computers with touchscreens. The baboons could freely enter the booths and participate in the experiments. They could stop and start the experiments whenever they felt like it.

Inside the noisy testing booths, the baboons would see a four-letter word appear on the touchscreen. They would then tap a plus sign on the screen if the word was a real word or an oval shape if the word was a nonsense word. The baboons received a food treat after a correct response. Take a look:

The researchers say that over a period of a month and a half, the baboons learned to discriminate dozens of words from more than 7,000 non-words. This ability to identify specific combinations of letters is called "orthographic processing." It is a key component of reading. The researchers say this suggests that one of the building blocks of reading ability - which is among the most complex of human skills - may be more common in the primate brain than previously thought.

The research was published here in Science Magazine.

Photo: Image courtesy of J. Fagot

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