How many four-letter words do you know? Dan has figured out 308.
Dan is a baboon who lives at the Cognitive Research Laboratory in France. He and five other baboons have had access to a computer that stores 500 real four-letter words and nearly 8,000 non-words, like XFOP or TYWQ.
During the course of the six-week study, Dan and his pals were free to use the computer whenever they liked, and they got a treat whenever they identified a real word on the screen. Some of the baboons worked the computer up to 3,000 times a day – even in the middle of the night – and eventually were scoring hits about 75 percent of the time.
“This … is a remarkable result, given the level of orthographic similarity between the word and non-word,” said Jonathan Grainger, who led the study. “More detailed analysis revealed that baboons were not simply memorizing the word … but had learned to discriminate words from non-words on the basis of differences in the frequency of letter combinations.”
What does it all mean?
It’s not that the baboons have human-like language skills or had really learned to spell. But the study showed that they have an innate sense of pattern recognition – and quite an advanced one. For example, they soon realized that certain letters tend to go together to form real words. So even when new words were sprung on them, they would guess that a word with TH in it was more likely to be a real word than one with, say BQ.
The scientists believe that this is giving us some real insight into how we humans started (and still start) learning to read. Their abilities suggest that the ability to read words is just a more advanced version of the pattern-recognition skill that lets us identify letters. And if baboons can do it so easily, that tells us that it’s a skill that was there long before the first human had ever written down a letter.
“They don’t have language and there’s no association with reading at all,” Grainger said. He explained that when we read, “we are basically mimicking what we are doing when we recognize everyday objects, something the baboons do just as well as us.”
He said that since other primates are also able to identify objects this way, they would probably be able to master the difference between words and non-words, too. Indeed, any animal who identifies objects in a similar way we humans do would probably be able to tell words from non-words, like the baboons.
The study is reported in Science magazine, and is described in this video by Jonathan Grainger: