Can baboons read better than you?
Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it’s not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word.
Finally KITE comes up.
He pauses and hits a green button to show it’s a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.
Dan the baboon is part of new research that shows he and his kind are able to pick up the first step in reading — seeing patterns and understanding which four-letter combinations are words and which are just “gobbledygook.”
The study shows that reading’s early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought and it also suggests that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.
“They’ve got the hang of this thing,” said Jonathan Grainger, a French scientist and lead author of the research.
Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.
It’s still a far cry from real reading, so no a monkey can’t read better than you. They don’t know what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger.
In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about three-out-of-four times, according to the study published in Thursday’s journal Science.
The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.
The baboons are rewarded with food when they press the right spot on the screen: A blue plus sign for bogus combos or a green oval for real words.
Even though the experiments were done in France, the researchers used English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.
Reported by SETH BORENSTEIN of the Associated Press from WASHINGTON, D.C. He can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears