Reading Four Letter Words

We are adept at recognizing patterns and other primates are too. Survival for monkey or man  is dependent on such observations. One of the most difficult patterns that we work with everyday is writing, perhaps we could say that this is our crowning achievement.

When we’re young we’re taught to read by whatever method is fashionable at the time.  But we should remember that our methodology isn’t unique.  Hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two systems that require recognizing patterns for complete words as opposing building them up from a variety of building blocks.

So what about our primate cousins? The BBC report on some research by Grainger and Fagot with baboons (1).  The baboons had to recognize words on a touch screen so that they could touch a cross or an oval to indicate if the letters were a word or not in order to get a goodie.

The researchers were tireless in that they showed their participants 61k different combinations of letters. Our baboon friends became quite adept at recognizing four letter words. The top performer, Dan, was good for at least 300. No mention was made of any understanding beyond that the pattern meant ‘goodie.’

To me, this doesn’t seem to surprising as being shut in a compound with nothing much else to do. Punching a computer screen for treats would seem to be a pastime that might be worth trying. After all, in the wild, rapid pattern recognition is a survival skill.


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