Jie Gao of Kyoto University in Japan and Peking University in China led the study. Gao noted that while it took chimps longer to establish the pattern in a rock-paper-scissors game compared to a human child, the chimp still displayed the ability to learn complex relationship networks. The study likens the mental potential of chimps to that of a four-year old human child.
The rock-paper-scissors game is one that seems simple but is actually more complex than people realize. First, players have to know which signals trump the other. For example, paper beats rock, while rock wins over scissors, and scissors defeats paper. After understanding these transverse patterns, each player then has to think on their feet to beat their opponent.
For the purposes of this study, seven chimpanzees of different ages and sexes were housed in the Primate Research Institute at the Kyoto University. They were then placed in a booth that had a touchscreen where they were trained on the paper-rock, rock-scissors, and scissors-paper combinations. Once the researchers felt that the chimps understood all three winning pairs, different combinations were randomly presented on the screen. Five of seven chimpanzees were able to complete the training after an average of 307 sessions.
Gao saw that given enough patience, time, and training, chimpanzees can understand circular patterns.
The team also taught the same game to 38 preschool children. Their ages ranged from three to six. For the most part, children showed little difficulty in learning the game. Children were able to learn the basic pattern within five sessions. Their performance though, was dependent on age. Researchers saw the children who were around four years old were able to play the game with skill more than luck.
“This suggests that children acquire the ability to learn a circular relationship and to solve a transverse patterning problem around the age of four years,” says Gao on Science Daily. “The chimpanzees’ performance during the mixed-pair sessions was similar to that of four-year-old children.”
The study concluded with the suggestion that more studies be conducted to see how age and sex influence the ability of various species to learn circular relationships.
In the past, scientists traditionally calculated intelligence according to brain size. These measurements however have long been observed to be inaccurate. Higher forms of thinking now include the ability to overcome problems based on reasoning, understanding, and foresight. Among all the primates, chimpanzees have been the object of continuous research. Scientists have long been fascinated with how far their intelligence goes.
This new study further adds to how much chimps are able to process. (Related: Chimps beat humans in strategic computer game test.)
Current data suggests that chimps can learn at least 39 different behaviors, including breeding and tool-use. This adaptation of knowledge further suggests that humans and chimps are far more related than initially perceived.
Apart from tool-use, scientists have noted that chimpanzees are capable of learning different ways of communication. One study found that trained bonobos could learn the sounds of some words, and even a rudimentary form of sign language. Bonobos could even point to some objects using a keyboard.
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