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December 14th, 2009
Web-Exclusive Video: Monkeys and Magic Fruit

The Human Spark crew visited Yale University scientist Laurie Santos on the Puerto Rican island where she conducts cognition studies with a free-ranging population of monkeys. Laurie aims to learn more about our brains’ evolutionary origins by figuring out what we share with monkeys – and what we don’t. The idea is that talents we share probably arose early in evolution in our common ancestor; uniquely human talents likely evolved after that split.

In this video, Laurie pulls a sleight-of-hand switcheroo on her monkey research subjects. Will they notice when a fruit that starts rolling down a plank as a kiwi reaches the bottom as a lime? Watch to see how the monkeys react… and find out what this study implies about their abilities – and ours.

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For more info, check out this article about Laurie and her monkey research from Discover Magazine: “The ‘Monkey Whisperer’ Learns the Secrets of Primate Economics

  • Sam Diomede

    I found your idea to be simple yet very effective in trying to understand the evolutionary development of our brains. And I found it interesting how you used somewhat of a qualitative judgement of the monkey’s thoughts – for instance how you could tell that the monkey was surpised. It seems that you are being extremely resourceful. Thanks for the insight!

  • lanny taylor

    There are a lot of assumptions being made by the researchers,regarding what the monkeys are realizing. It’s all quess work. There would have to be an incentive for the monkey to know or notice the difference about the objects, like if the monkey was rewarded by having the original object being edible and for knowing that the edible one is in the middle box,and being rewarded for finding it. It’s a poorly designed experiment. Too many unprovable assumptions are being made.

  • Rick Beaumont

    I agree with lanny. Could the monkey be looking longer in the box the second time because there is actually a fruit there rather than it being empty? Maybe the monkey is just hungry and can see the fruit and is working out if it can get to it without getting hurt/caught etc…Well, that’s my Panglossian take on this… Maybe due to editing and us not seeing any control experiments ie. rolling the same fruit all the way and a second similar fruit magically appearing and then timing the monkey…Still there are way too many reasons for the length of a look. Remember “Only statements that are framed so that they can be tested or falsified are scientific…”Karl Popper. Opinion often seems to be more important for entertainment than fact. Good luck with the science.

  • Brian

    I agree with Rick’s first sentence. A better experiment would be to get rid of the bottom box; then roll a single fruit down the track; pick up the fruit and walk away. Will the monkey investigate the middle box? Hopefully not because it thinks there is one fruit and you walked away with it. Repeat with the two fruits, leaving the first fruit hidden in the middle box and taking away the different lower fruit. If the monkey now investigates the middle box, there is a good chance it is because it knows that this time there is a missing fruit and wants to find it.

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