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.