Boysen can't come to the phone right now. She's trying, but
the clamoring students seeking her advice and the hooting
chimps seeking her attention keep her from quite making it
across her lab to the receiver. It's another day in the life
of Sally Boysen, director
of the Comparative Cognition Project at Ohio State University.
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associate professor of psychology, Sally Boysen has spent
her career peering into the minds of our closest cousins,
the chimpanzees. Her findings show that chimpanzees can be
taught some human-like cognitive skills that never manifest
in the wild. Boysen has taught chimps to count and to subtract
and she documented their ability to think abstractly. Her
work, sometimes controversial, often sheds light on the way
our own intelligence might have evolved.
began studying chimpanzees more than 25 years ago when she
herself was a student at OSU. Long interested in animal studies,
Boysen took a class in psycholinguistics in 1973.
"That was it," Boysen recalls. "The light bulb came on and
there was no turning back."
One of five children, Boysen was born and raised in Sandusky,
Ohio. A curious kid, she spent much of her youth in the stacks
at the Sandusky public library where she quickly exhausted
the children's section and became the youngest patron to hold
an adult library card. Her mother, a teacher, encouraged her
daughter's intellectual curiosity by spending what she could
on books, allocating their somewhat limited funds to the World
Book Encyclopedia, the lavish color pictures in which Sally
Boysen still recalls vividly. Her father, director of a metallurgy
lab, used to bring home chemicals and perform simple experiments
in the basement. Today, this marriage of diligence and experimentation
is the hallmark of Boysen's body of work.
the Lab with Chimps
"There is even in science," says Boysen, "such reticence
to have us be part of the Darwinian continuum."
tests chimps' ability to think abstractly; can they figure
out what another chimp is thinking? Can they use language?
Can they count? Her experiments show they can do all of these
1984, for example, she began teaching chimps to count.
took a couple of years for the chimps to have a good solid
working counting repertoire," says Boysen. "But once our chimps
had a basic understanding, they figured out about addition
and subtraction spontaneously."
and Sheeba get "rowdy" before the experiment.
perhaps her most ambitious project to date, Boysen is currently
teaching several animals to "read" and "write" using English
letters and words. Among her students is 17-year-old Sheeba,
who, in Boysen's care since the age of two, has experience
with a wide variety of cognitive tasks. She also, says Boysen,
seems to enjoy her schoolwork more than other chimps - animals
with notoriously short attention spans. So far, she is doing
very well with her reading and writing.
hope that, down the road, we can explore how the chimps view
their social world by asking them, using their newly-acquired
Boysen can't say for certain if her plan to talk to the animals
will work. She can say, however, that it's often human ingenuity
and patience that makes the difference, as in the experiment
known as Big Room/Little Room. In this experiment, a researcher
uses a scale model to show a chimp where a real object is
hidden in a full-size room- a task human children can't grasp
until age three (Sheeba showed off her talents in the segment
Chimp Minds). Though
all of Boysen's adult female chimps performed the task immediately,
it took five years before researchers could motivate the adult
males to complete the task correctly.
to Boysen, the males were perfectly able to grasp the concept
of the scale room; they just needed more incentive- first
to pay attention to the researcher, and second to perform
the task at all.
know what they say," says Boysen. "Boys will be boys."
and her colleagues haven't had much luck with very young chimps
of either sex. It's unclear whether they are too young, or
simply too easily distracted, to catch on.
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