Primate Memory

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Recent research using eye-tracking technology has revealed some interesting differences between humans and chimpanzees. As part of these studies, no training or verbal instruction was provided other than requesting that the participants remain seated in front of a monitor. A small visual stimulus, such as a face, is displayed in a random position on the screen and is quickly changed in succession to other images in different positions. The participants observe and spontaneously track the ever-changing stimuli. The studies have shown that chimpanzees possess a remarkable aptitude for switching focus from one stimulus to another. This is not the case for humans. We often stick to one stimulus and are unable to follow the quick change to the next. It seems that our way of perceiving the world is highly skewed toward focusing on a stimulus to determine its meaning. By contrast, chimpanzees are able to shift their attention to capture the whole scene as quickly as possible.40

In 2013, I proposed the cognitive tradeoff theory of language and memory.41 Our most recent common ancestor with chimpanzees may have possessed an extraordinary chimpanzee-like working memory, but over the course of human evolution, I suggested, we have lost this capability and acquired language in return.42 Suppose that a creature passes in front of you in the forest. It has a brown back, black legs, and a white spot on its forehead. Chimpanzees are highly adept at quickly detecting and memorizing these features. Humans lack this capability, but we have evolved other ways to label what we have witnessed, such as mimicking the body posture and shape of the creature, mimicking the sounds it made, or vocally labeling it as, say, an antelope.