The Smart, Speechless Types

By Jocelyn SelimJun 1, 2003 5:00 AM


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Can animals possess true intelligence without language? Herb Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, decided to find a way to measure monkey smarts without using words. He placed rhesus macaques in front of a touch-sensitive video monitor and let them try to arrange a set of seven photographs into a particular sequence. The reward was a banana pellet. "The task is roughly equivalent to asking you to learn the correct order of letters of the English alphabet through trial and error," Terrace says. "It takes memory, logic, and a lot of time."

Not only did the macaques figure out the correct order, but they initially did so as quickly as a control group of college students assigned the same task. Also, the monkeys significantly improved their times when shown other sets of ordered photographs, suggesting that they had mastered the concept of ordered sorting and could apply it to new problems, a hallmark of human intelligence. "It is like having a child learn the days of the week and then asking him to learn the months," Terrace says.

Photographs courtesy of Herb Terrace/Columbia University.

To ensure his subjects weren't learning by rote, Terrace had them combine items from various lists while maintaining the correct order. Again, the macaques succeeded. "They can learn how to learn and develop expertise in the same sort of task that we use language to accomplish," Terrace says. "This certainly blows out of the water the idea that intelligence started with language."

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