Thursday, April 12, 2012

Baboons Recognize Real Words from Gibberish

Baboons can learn to tell the difference between real four-letter words and nonsense combinations of letters. And once they figure out the patterns, these monkeys can guess with impressive accuracy whether a new word is real or fake.

Because baboons can’t actually read, a new study supports the theory that the brains of our primate ancestors held the necessary hardware for understanding written words long before humans evolved. Only after we starting writing and reading about 5,400 years or so did we apply our object-recognition abilities to letter symbols.

And even though we think of letters as sound units that allow us to piece words together, the new findings suggest that our brains may also view written letters like the legs on a table or the wheels on a car. Each part fits together to create an object that we recognize as a whole.

Eventually, the findings might weigh in on debates about how best to teach children to read.

“Obviously, we are using letters to get from the printed to the spoken form, and it is absolutely essential for kids to learn that this has to happen, but that’s only part of the story,” said Jonathan Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at CNRS, a national research center in Marseille, France. “The other reason we use letters in the very first phases of learning to read is that we’re basically doing what we do with ordinary everyday objects – using object parts to reconstruct the whole identity.”

“We can now look at what happens when baboons are learning words and also associating them with meaning,” he added. “We have a new paradigm that needs to be explored.”

Full story here.

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