Baboons learn the first steps of word recognition

Baboons can learn reading skills
Findings may indicate pre-existing capacity in brain

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.

Tip: Fortean Times Daily News

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 four-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.

This is VERY exciting results. Baboons, like us, are pattern finders and they may be what we first do in recognizing words – noticing common ways real words are formed. Let’s be clear, though, they don’t understand what these words mean. But it’s insight into how people learn and can lead to finding better ways to help kids learn to read and treat learning disabilities.

Also, it reminds us that animals are pretty darn smart.