Monkeys do mental math

New research from Duke University suggests that monkeys can do basic mental addition almost as well as college students. Non-human primates are really showing off these days; just a few weeks ago young chimps beat people at memory games.
"We know that animals can recognize quantities, but there is less evidence for their ability to carry out explicit mathematical tasks, such as addition," said graduate student Jessica Cantlon. "Our study shows that they can."

Cantlon and (neuroscientist Elizabeth) Brannon set up an experiment in which macaque monkeys were placed in front of a computer touch screen displaying a variable number of dots. Those dots were then removed and a new screen appeared with a different number of dots. A third screen then appeared displaying two boxes; one containing the sum of the first two sets of dots and one containing a different number. The monkeys were rewarded for touching the box containing the correct sum of the sets.

The same test was presented to college students, who were asked to choose the correct sum without counting the individual dots. While the college students were correct 94 percent the time and the monkeys 76 percent, the average response time for both monkeys and humans was about one second....

That monkeys and humans share the ability to add suggests that basic arithmetic may be part of our shared evolutionary past.
Link (Thanks, Lindsay Tiemeyer!)



  1. Very interesting. Reminds me of a book I read entitled From One to Zero by Jorges Ifrah (I think it was). In it he described that many animals have a number sense including birds. But he also stated that it usually doesn’t exist beyond three items. In fact, humans don’t have an inante number sense much beyond 3 items either (according to the book) which is why innumerate cultures use a word like “many” to describe quantities greater than 3 or 4. Counting is one of the first things that humans learn to do after they walk. For this reason our actual number sense is obscured.

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