18 December 2007

Monkeys can do math. Sort of.

Monkeys and college students equal at mental math? (Reuters)

Monkeys and college students were asked to do addition problems mentally, by being shown two sets of dots and then being asked to pick out a third set of dots that had the same number of dots as the first two sets combined. Apparently (according to the Reuters article) the college students were told not to count or verbalize as they did the math; this doesn't seem to make a huge difference, though, since average about one second so it really wouldn't have been practical to do so. This seems like an unfair handicap; we're so used to doing math verbally that doing it any other way is difficult. I also wonder if calculator use among humans has contributed to this. What would have happened if the same study were done fifty years ago?

The headline is a bit inaccurate, though; the monkeys responded equally quickly to the problems, but they were less accurate (94% accuracy for humans, 76% for monkeys).

All snarking aside, though, it's interesting that there are parts of mathematics that appear to not depend on linguistic abilities. And it seems a bit surprising that monkeys would be nearly as good at these tasks as college students, because the college students have had quite a bit more mathematical experience! But the task in question had to be done quickly enough that it really couldn't be verbalized, and most of the students' mathematical experience has been mediated through language.

The actual article is available online: Jessica F. Cantlon*, Elizabeth M. Brannon, "Basic Math in Monkeys and College Students", PLoS Biology 5(12): e328. (It's nice to be able to actually read the article that the journalists are hastily generalizing about! Often a subscription is required to do so, which is incredibly frustrating.)

1 comment:

michael said...

Cats can count one, two, many. I noticed that when my cats have kittens and we remove them.