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It’s not sci-fi: Baboons can learn to recognize words
Monkey see, monkey read? Baboons can reliably distinguish short words in experiments, scientists reported on Thursday.
The finding points to one of the keys to human reading. Kids learn the sounds of their ABCS before learning to read, but recognizing word shapes also plays a stronger-thansuspected earlier role in literacy, the baboon results suggest.
“The baboons aren’t reading; they don’t attach any meaning to the words other than recognizing shapes,” says psychologist Jonathan Grainger of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, who led the study, published in the journal Science. “But the point is they can recognize the right ones, and ones close to the right ones, without understanding their meaning.”
The experiment found that six baboons could be trained to distinguish a few dozen words with four letters from around 7,800 non-words with about 75% accuracy. One learned 308 words. Even when they saw a word for the first time, the baboons, once trained, were more likely to recognize it as a real word and to prefer it over a nonsense word. More remarkably, the researchers found the baboons mistook visually similar non-words for real words in exactly the same pattern as human readers tend to do.
“The really striking result is that baboons could distinguish, in a statistical sense, not only words from non-words but (they) saw them the way that human English readers do as well,” says neuroscientist Charles Connor of the Mind-brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was not part of the study. “We’re seeing (that) reading-like vision processes can occur in a species without language, and that is really surprising.”
The experiment also points to visualattention shortfalls, rather than problems in the brain with speaking or hearing, as an explanation for dyslexia in children, says neuropsychologist Andrea Facoetti of Italy’s University of Padua. Facoetti and colleagues on Thursday reported in the journal Current Biology that trouble with visual tasks in 5-year-olds predicts future dyslexia.
“Obviously, this is just part of the story when it comes to really learning to read,” Grainger says. “We still have to teach kids what sounds go with each letter.”