The Loh Down On Science

Monkey See

How do you say "I'd like to call my life line" in monkey talk?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with The Loh Down on Science.

Metacognition ... thinking about how we think. Something we do all the time. For instance ... realizing that a brain teaser is too hard for you.

But are humans the only animals who think about thinking?

So wondered John David Smith, from State University of New York at Buffalo. Smith taught some rhesus monkeys to work yes/no puzzles on a computer. Each right answer was rewarded with a tasty food pellet. Incorrect responses were penalized by a 20-second "time out."

But the monkeys could also choose a third option, corresponding to "I'm not sure." Selecting this option simply moved the monkey immediately on to the next puzzle. No reward, but no penalty, either.

Of five monkeys tested, four learned to select this "Uncertain" option whenever facing the most difficult puzzles. Smith says the fact that the animals expressed self-doubt so clearly shows they were thinking about how they think, even if not necessarily consciously.

See? Sometimes it can be a case of monkey see, monkey don't really know.



The Loh Down on Science, online, at lohdown.org. Produced by 89.3 KPCC and the California Institute of Technology, and made possible by TIAA-CREF.

Follow us on Twitter at LohDown.


blog comments powered by Disqus