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Chimpanzees Remember Things Faster Than You Do

Chimpanzees are several times stronger than us, generally healthier, and research suggests that they might have better memories too

Image: Vex

In many ways, our chimpanzee relatives are better designed than we are. They’re several times stronger than us, generally healthier and, research suggests, better at remembering things, too. Researchers in Japan trained chimps to complete a memory game. They showed them numbers randomly displayed on the screen. Once the chimp finds and presses the number one, all the numbers turn into little white boxes, hiding their values. But chimps remember where each one was in seconds.

Humans, on the other hand, aren’t so good. The Independent reports:

It is impossible for people to do the same cognitive task that quickly, said Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a primatologist at Kyoto University. “They have a better working memory than us,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

You can take the test here to see how well you do. This isn’t exactly new news—the experiment Matsuzawa is describing was done in 2007. Smithsonian profiled Matsuzawa in 2010, writing:

Matsuzawa and the dozen scientists and graduate students who work with him are peering into the minds of our closest relatives, whose common ancestor with humans lived some six million years ago, to understand what separates them from us. He and his co-workers probe how chimpanzees remember, learn numbers, perceive and categorize objects and match voices with faces. It’s a tricky business that requires intimate relationships with the animals as well as cleverly designed studies to test the range and limitations of the chimpanzees’ cognition.

 

While we can’t remember those numbers nearly as well, human brains have other perks. LiveScience writes:

Despite sharing 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, humans have much bigger brains and are, as a species, much more intelligent. Now a new study sheds light on why: Unlike chimps, humans undergo a massive explosion in white matter growth, or the connections between brain cells, in the first two years of life.

Which explains why those first few years are so important for things like language skills and interpersonal knowledge. So we might not be able to remember the numbers on the screen, but we can figure out how to interact with our friends on Facebook.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Thinking Like a Chimpanzee
50 Years of Chimpanzee Discoveries at Gombe

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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