Week 13: Assessing Cognition in Apes


The Ape Genius video was a great way to learn more information about cognition in primates, specifically how we can assess these various levels of cognition. The main purpose of the video, as it started out, was to investigate the differences between human cognition and primate cognition. The researchers noted that they wanted to try to discover the small differences between human and animal cognition that created big differences between behavior and overall species capability. The way to go about answering this question was to ask the question: what kind of ape mind will lead a species to culture? The main conclusion that these researchers came to was that “culture” in apes was passed down based on a juvenile’s ability to copy behavior that he or she witnesses in older individuals.

A study that was conducted to assess cognition was designed based around a chimp’s ability to receive fruit rewards. A “slot – machine” like apparatus was designed where the chimpanzee had to turn a disk to release the grape, and then press a lever to actually receive the grape. While assessing how the chimp learned to get the grape, the researchers were able to determine how this individual chimpanzee learned through trial and error as well as imitation. Another way to study cognition that the video Ape Genius touches on includes studying tool usage in primates. My favorite study, however, was the one that involved a chimpanzee who was required to move a large block. After a while it became very clear to the chimpanzee that he would not be able to move it on his own and he sought out the researcher and led the researcher over to the box to help move it. In subsequent trials, the chimpanzee asked for help quicker.

One thing that I particularly liked about the video was how well it addressed the topic of anthropomorphism, which we have spent much time discussing in this class. The video, at one point, mentions that it is difficult to say what the animals are thinking. It is easy to anthropomorphize animals, especially apes – who are so similar to humans – but researchers must always be wary of those tendencies. By anthropomorphizing cognition in apes and other primates results can get cloudy, or we can be quick to jump to conclusions. What I think the video did particularly well, however, was refusing to discount the emotions that we can witness in primates. The video notes that while studying cognition in primates, such as facial expressions, visual communication, and other means of communication that it is “hard to dismiss their feelings.” These researchers, though barring all preconceived notions of cognitive abilities and thoughts are at the same time addressing emotions or other cognitive experiences beyond just the behavioral and learned component.

This aspect, I think, expresses how the video made it a point to compare humans and animal cognition because of our relationship within the animal kingdom. Through the video I was able to see how cognitive studies on apes can break down the boundaries we have built between humans and “beasts.” Learning by imitation is not present in only humans, and that forces us to reformulate what actually separates us from our closest relatives.


This experiment is to test working memory in chimpanzees, while assessing their ability to understand what the study calls “symbolic representation,” meaning they used numerical sequences.

The chimpanzees come in voluntarily to participate in the research study. Each one uses a computer monitor to follow various sequences. They eventually learn numerical sequences and can touch the correct numbers in the correct order. If an incorrect number is touched, the sequence starts over. This was impressive to me, but there’s more. After the sequence has been finished, it starts over. The chimpanzee can then touch the numbers in the correct order, even though the numbers are masked. These tasks are very difficult, and show that sometimes the chimpanzees.

The conclusions showed that some younger chimpanzees have better working memories than adult humans, but when it came to symbol matching they were much less proficient. These results show similarities and differences in human and chimpanzee cognition.

I liked how this study showed how the chimpanzees were being taken care of, and the video starts off by showing the layout of the research station, and how it is structured like a chimpanzee natural environment. I do wish, however, the study could have provided other means of assessing memory, because it is such a general term, and perhaps it could have been studied with several different tasks.


Matsuzawa T. 2009. “Symbolic representation of number in chimpanzees.” Curr Opin Neurobiol. 19(1): 92-98.


6 thoughts on “Week 13: Assessing Cognition in Apes

  1. shawmk11

    Wow, it was really interesting to see those experiments. I knew they were hard, but didn’t imagine that they would make them that difficult for them, and then have them still able to be successful! I think, similarly to what I discussed in my comment on Gavriella’s post, that I think the ability to socially learn from others is fundamentally why we humans are so advanced. I also think a major component to that is our capacity for complex language. Utilizing complex language we are able to effectively communicate thoughts and ideas to others so that they can learn from our own previous mistakes and advances. I think it will be interesting if multiple generations of primates like Kanzi, who can use a lexigram to communicate, will produce primates who are able to do even the difficult tasks shown in your video even easier or more proficiently as a result of others “telling” them the best way to do it.

  2. charlottegable

    I like the point you made about anthropomorphizing the primates we study. When reading Strier, I found myself thinking that there is no way to truly figure out what primates are actually thinking, especially under the topics of analyzing deception and seeing what we think primates think that other primates are thinking (that sentence alone was hard to read!). Overall, I think that other forms of cognition would be slightly easier to study, such as tool use, because they are more objective.

    (Also, Alex, I unknowingly used the same chimp experiment video in my blog post that you did – Apologies!)

  3. I definitely agree on the anthropomorphizing as well! I wish I tackled this in my post, but I find it hard to determine the motives of primates from behavior alone. Just thinking about how hard it is to tell what other cultural groups mean by their actions, and comparing that to why we believe primates act in the ways they do, it’s an interesting comparison and would make for a great paper topic!

  4. cavakn13

    Interesting! I think the idea that small nuances in cognition can lead to major manifestations in behavior is really key to the study of primate cognition. I also like the idea of “primate culture” and how that comes about through what the juveniles notice and imitate.

  5. I like your point about anthropomorphizing cognition as well! It’s easier to use our own human lens when looking at cognition but it’s a complex issue when applying research to primates.

  6. Your point about anthropomorphism is really significant, because I think that’s something humans do without even realizing it. That was actually a mistake I made in my midterm paper! With complete oversight I began describing the gorillas with behaviors and emotional states that I was not equipped to state. I think it’s easy to fall into that habit because we’re just applying what we know as humans to these animals, but it’s obviously incorrect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s