Scientists have found that baboons are adept at pattern recognition, being able to distinguish between real and fake four-letter words about three out of four times.
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 is 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 is 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.