Chimp Memory Beats Humans: New Report

A trained chimp’s memory beats out humans, according to a presentation by Tetsuro Matsuzawa to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences meeting in Boston on Thursday. Reporter Douglas Main for Live Science says that Matsuzawa, a lead researcher at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, smiled as he demonstrated a video of the test.

“It’s impossible for you,” he said. Matsuzawa has since posted the amazing video of Ai and Ayumu online, where skeptics can see it for themselves.

Ayumu, the star of the video, knows the numbers one to 19 in the correct order — that, in itself, an unusual skill for a chimp. He has been trained to tap them in the correct numerical order wherever they may appear on his monitor. To make the test tougher, as soon as he finds and punches the numeral one, the other numbers turn into blocks. To punch two, three, four, and so on in the correct order, he must rely on his short-term memory.

Most of us mere humans will acknowledge that we’re lucky to remember where we left our keys, much less where a bunch of hidden numbers might be lurking on our screens. A few so-called idiot savants like the late “Rain Man” Kim Peek might have put Ayumu to the test. It’s said that Peek recalled virtually everything he ever saw.

But having so much of his brain devoted to storing memories came at a cost. He reportedly even had difficulty with such simple tasks as flipping on a light.

The study of what chimps can remember, and how the chimp memory differs from human recall, comes at a critical time. As the federal government moves forward with plans to phase out the use of chimps in research, the question of how to retire the intelligent animals has come to the forefront. Another AAAS presentation addressed the issue of chimps that have been traumatized by their role as research animals.

After years or even decades in a research setting, some chimps seem to be unable to forget their trauma. Like humans suffering from post-traumatic stress order, some chimps have needed treatment with prescription anti-depressant medications to recover.

A perfect memory can be a mixed blessing. A chimp’s memory may well beat out a human’s, but at what cost?