Study: Apes’ Memories Are Enhanced by Watching Humans Perform Tasks

At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, a Franklin & Marshall College professor and four colleagues examined memory retention in chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas. They found the apes remember the actions of a live model performing a task than those of an inanimate device.

As lead researcher in the study, F&M Assistant Professor of Psychology and Scientific and Philosophical Studies of the Mind Lauren Howard said the team developed a cutting-edge, noninvasive eye-tracking method to examine the influence of social context on the apes’ attention and memory.

The five chimpanzees and two gorillas watched a video of a human hand (social model) constructing a tower from wooden building blocks and a video of a mechanical claw (non-social condition) performing the same task. The eye tracker allowed the researchers to passively record exactly where the apes were looking while they watched the videos, and also what they remembered after the fact.

“The apes showed memory for the event featuring a social model, though not for the non-social condition,” Howard said. “These findings provide the first evidence that, like humans, social stimuli increase nonhuman primates’ event memory, which may aid in the type of information transmission that creates culture.” 

  • Kwan, one of the Lincoln Park Zoo's study subjects, watching a video of a mechanical claw. Kwan, one of the Lincoln Park Zoo's study subjects, watching a video of a mechanical claw. Image Credit: Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes research team, led by Assistant Director Lydia Hopper, Ph.D., and including Director Stephen Ross, Ph.D. and Katherine Wagner, collaborated with Dr. Howard and Professor of Psychology Amanda Woodward, at the University of Chicago, for this project.

“We have long known that although great apes are expert social learners, and can gain new skills from watching groupmates, they are less able to learn the same skills if only shown the solution to a task without a social demonstration” Hopper said. “Our study is the first to shine a light on what makes socially-provided information so potent.”

“We found that apes were more likely to remember the event if they saw a person in the scene,” Howard said. “This was not due to the social condition being more visually engaging, because apes attended equally to each video. They simply remembered more about the event that included a social model than the inanimate object.”

This research was collected on exhibit at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Regenstein Center for African Apes. The chimpanzees and gorillas voluntarily participated in the research while remaining in their social groups on exhibit. Additionally, members of the zoo’s Hurvis Center for Learning interpreted the study to guests and shared the importance of voluntary participation throughout the duration of the research.

The research team’s findings will be published Jan. 20 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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