Working memory… less is sometimes more

How good’s your working memory? Better than a 7 year old chimpanzee called Ayumu?

We happened across a fascinating CNN article a while ago on research at the Primate Research Institute (Kyoto University), where a number of chimps have been learning linguistic skills.

The experiment below is on working memory and numerals. Ayumu is shown a series of unique numbers (between 1 to 9) in random locations on a screen. After 0.21s, each number is then covered by a blank square – at which point Ayumu has to press on the blank boxes to match the original numerical sequence.

Play the clip below before reading on – make sure you’re concentrating :-)

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Amazing – and Ayumu didn’t even appear to be concentrating that hard!

When repeated with students (who spent 3 months practising) they couldn’t equal this chimp’s feat (80% accuracy, cf. 40% for the students).

One aspect of success was age: the ability to remember a ’snapshot’ of information decreases with onset of adulthood (young chimp vs. adult human). A theory on top of this is that the human brain ‘loses’ some of its working memory abilities to be able to apply itself to bigger and better things – for example language, and higher order thinking.

If you want to know more about Ayumu and his friends, click here.

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