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Baboons can learn to spot printed words

A baboon from the study by Dr. Grainger and colleagues.
[Image courtesy of J. Fagot]

Baboons can't read, but they can learn to tell the difference between real printed words (like KITE) and nonsense words (like ZEVS), scientists say.

These findings are surprising because researchers have long thought that recognizing words in this way is something that you need language skills for. Or, in other words, something that only humans can do.

Jonathan Grainger of CNRS and Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France and colleagues studied a group of baboons living in a fenced-in area that included several booths holding computers with touch-sensitive screens. The animals could freely enter the booths and participate in the experiments, stopping and starting whenever they wanted.

The baboons would see a four-letter sequence appear on the screen and then tap one of two shapes on the screen, depending on whether the sequences was a real word or a nonsense word. They received a food treat after a correct response.

Over a period of a month and a half, the baboons learned to discriminate dozens of words from more than 7,000 non-words. This ability to identify specific combinations of letters is called "orthographic processing," and it's a key component of reading. Thus, one of the building blocks of reading ability, which is among the most complex of human skills, may be more common in the primate brain than previously thought.

This research appears in the 13 April 2012 issue of the journal Science.