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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

No Monkey Business with Math Calculating Primates



Most of us have difficulty with math. The exercise lands in the categories somewhere between going to the dentist and paying bills. However, math is an important function of higher order thinking. It requires the ability to understand quantities of information and put those into symbols for manipulation. According to a recent study in the National Academy of Science (PNAS) Rhesus Monkeys have the ability to do math using similar methods as humans. 

Using three Rhesus Macques that are four and five years old the researchers put them into an intense math learning program. The monkeys studied two to four hours a day and were rewarded with treats. Sometimes these monkeys studied seven days a week in their own learning classes. 

The monkeys touched a screen choosing between two options (1). The touch screen only required them to touch the right answers to get rewarded (conditioning). They were taught 26 abstract symbols by reinforcing correct learning. The monkeys were able to touch the biggest number 90% of the time.

The monkeys were able to move from using physical quantities to abstract Arabic numerals. Larger numbers received larger rewards. Correct answers created satisfaction in the learning. As an example they were taught the difference between XXX xx XXX xx or 11 as a higher number. It requires a fundamental shift in what these symbols represented to the monkeys. 

Humans are still the best in math and can learn more quickly than monkeys. However, the study does help us find the 97%+ similarities found between the two species. It is possible that monkeys have the capacity to use some of the mental processes of humans as well as the ability to think abstractly about numbers. Researchers have known for a long time how smart rhesus monkeys were and have used those in various programs include space flight. They now know they are capable of much more with the right education.  

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