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Chimps R Us

Photo of Boysen and Alan
  Alan learns from chimp expert Sally Boysen.

In "Chimp Minds," Alan Alda describes two different experiments designed to demonstrate chimpanzees' ability to think abstractly. At the Center for Orangutan and Chimpanzee Conservation in Wauchula, FL, psychologist David Bjorklund tests two young chimps for their ability to think abstractly.

Bjorklund and his colleagues present the chimps with objects paired up in such a way that tests the animals' expectations. For instance, the chimps are first shown a stuffed blackbird being stroked like a real bird, then a stuffed blackbird being used like a screwdriver. Immediately, the chimps recognize something is "off" about the screwdriver blackbird. The carefully controlled tests eventually trip up six-year-old Noelle, but not Grub, who demonstrates that, by age nine, chimps have a solid concept about the way things should be.

Photo of log as a baby

A log treated like a baby? Older chimps can tell that this is unusual.


In her lab at Ohio State University, Sally Boysen demonstrates how chimpanzees can think abstractly. Boysen shows the adult chimp Sheeba a miniature version of a room. The chimp then watches as Boysen hides a tiny can of soda in the cupboard in the model room. Next, Boysen hides a real can of soda in the life-sized version of the same room. Sheeba has no trouble making the leap. Seventeen-year-old Sheeba easily finds the can of soda, something human children must at least three-years-old to figure out. This type of abstract thinking is just one more way our closest cousins are like us.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
What are They Thinking?

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