Great Apes – Chimpanzees, Orangutans, And Bonobos – Can Read Minds, Says New Study — Sort Of

The great apes have long mystified mankind. They are so familiar to us with their fingers and toes, their forward facing eyes, and their ability, in some cases, to use tools — all of these things make us feel like we’re looking in some sort of a prehistoric mirror. Now, some researchers are stating that some of the great apes are much more like humans that previously thought.

Research conducted at Duke University claims that some great apes can tell when something is just in your mind. The paper, published in the October 7 issue of the journal, Science, explains the great ape research. As explained by the paper’s authors, the ability to tell mistaken beliefs of others is considered one of the foremost factors in human cognitive development. The ability is usually developed in human beings by the age of 5 and it helps us to empathize with other human beings. The authors of the great ape study note that this ability to tell mistaken beliefs in others is paramount to our ability to develop all level of relationships with other human beings.

And now it seems that humans aren’t the only ones able to develop this ability.


The great ape study was a joint effort between Duke University, Kyoto University, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Conducted over a number of years, the researchers concluded that certain great apes can determine what others want and what other might know; in effect, the researchers stated that the great apes have a limited ability to “read minds.” However, there’s a big caveat to the great apes’ ability to fully understand what others are thinking; when it comes to understanding what someone else is thinking — especially when those thoughts are false — the great apes have had a dismal success rate.

One of the authors of the paper, Christopher Krupenye, from Duke University, spoke to why the study was important.

“This cognitive ability is at the heart of so many human social skills. Like many of us, great apes love a good drama. When there’s confrontation between individuals, they’re curious about what will happen next.”

The great ape research actually consisted, in part, in having the great apes watch a film. Fourteen chimpanzees, nine bonobos, and seven orangutans watched a simple film which showed a rock being placed by a man in one of three boxes. The man leaves and another subject removes the rock from the first box and places it in another one. When the man returned to the room to find the hidden rock, the great apes’ eyes were tracked with an infrared light to see where they looked — in effect, where the great apes thought the man would look for the rock. Twenty-two of the 30 great apes tested looked directly at the boxes, and 17 of the great apes looked at the first box, where the rock was last seen by the man. According to the researchers, the great apes were effectively presuming that the man would look for the rock in the last place it was seen, even though the rock had been moved to a different box. Another variation of the film was shown to another set of 40 great apes and the results were similar.


The researchers state that as the great apes kept their eyes on the first box, that even though they know that the rock isn’t there, they assume that it is in that box where the man will look for it. As such, they are effectively “understanding” what the man will do with the information he has. The authors state that the data accumulated through the great apes study is virtually identical to similar tests produced in human infants under 2-years of age.

Up until now, it was the belief of scientists that only humans had the ability to pass a version of the “false belief” test, but now, it seems, that certain great apes have the ability to “read minds” as well.

[Featured Image by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images]