[lg policy] See Dan read: Baboons can learn to spot real words

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Apr 14 22:05:43 UTC 2012


See Dan read: Baboons can learn to spot real words
By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer [image: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
STATEMENT OF NEWS VALUES AND
PRINCIPLES]<http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html>


   This undated handout photo provided by of Joel Fagot, and the journal
Science shows Dora during a readng experiment. French researchers are
showing that baboons can do what is essentially the first step in reading.
They can identify recurring patterns _ in English. This study is important
in two fields: It shows that the early steps in reading are far more
instinctual than scientists first thought and it also demonstrates that
non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for. Baboons and
other monkeys are good pattern finders and it's more than memorization.
What they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words. But it's
still a far cry from real reading. The study is in the journal Science. (AP
Photo/Joel Fagot)


   -

   Apr. 2, 2012 12:00 PM ET


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WASHINGTON (AP) — Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The
letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey
signals it's not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word.
Finally KITE comes up.

He pauses and hits a green oval to show it's a word. In the space of just a
few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a
form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.

Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the
first step in reading — identifying recurring patterns and determining
which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.

The study shows that reading's early steps are far more instinctive than
scientists first thought and it also indicates that non-human primates may
be smarter than we give them credit for.

"They've got the hang of this thing," said Jonathan Grainger, a French
scientist and lead author of the research.

Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and what they are doing
may be what we first do in recognizing words.

It's still a far cry from real reading. They don't understand what these
words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger, a
cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.

In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words
about three-out-of-four times, according to the study published in
Thursday's journal Science.

The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a
human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308
four-letter words.

The baboons are rewarded with food when they press the right spot on the
screen: A blue plus sign for bogus combos or a green oval for real words.

Even though the experiments were done in France, the researchers used
English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.

The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which
letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend
to go together to form real words, such as SH but not FX, said Grainger. So
even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring
out which were real.

Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to
recognize patterns and objects, and perhaps that's how we humans also first
learn to read.

The study's results were called "extraordinarily exciting" by another
language researcher, psychology professor Stanislas Dehaene at the College
of France, who wasn't part of this study. He said Grainger's finding makes
sense. Dehaene's earlier work says a distinct part of the brain visually
recognizes the forms of words. The new work indicates this is also likely
in a non-human primate.

This new study also tells us a lot about our distant primate relatives.

"They have shown repeatedly amazing cognitive abilities," said study
co-author Joel Fagot, a researcher at the French National Center for
Scientific Research.

Bill Hopkins, a professor of psychology at the Yerkes Primate Center in
Atlanta, isn't surprised.

"We tend to underestimate what their capacities are," said Hopkins, who
wasn't part of the French research team. "Non-human primates are really
specialized in the visual domain and this is an example of that."

This raises interesting questions about how the complex primate mind works
without language or what we think of as language, Hopkins said. While we
use language to solve problems in our heads, such as deciphering words, it
seems that baboons use a "remarkably sophisticated" method to attack
problems without language, he said.

Key to the success of the experiment was a change in the testing technique,
the researchers said. The baboons weren't put in the computer stations and
forced to take the test. Instead, they could choose when they wanted to
work, going to one of the 10 computer booths at any time, even in the
middle of the night.

The most ambitious baboons test 3,000 times a day; the laziest only 400.

The advantage of this type of experiment setup, which can be considered
more humane, is that researchers get far more trials in a shorter time
period, he said.

"They come because they want to," Fagot said. "What do they want? They want
some food. They want to solve some task."

___

Online:

Science: http://www.sciencemag.org


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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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