Monkeys Go Bumper-to-Bumper with Uni Students in Nonverbal Math

Derek Bownds reviews a study by Cantlon and Brannon demonstrating similar nonverbal mathematical abilities in humans and nonhuman primates. They propose an evolutionary link in the form of a shared cognitive system for nonverbal arithmetic.

Adult humans possess mathematical abilities dwarfing those of any of their nonhuman counterparts, owing in good part to the ability to engage in symbolic processing (e.g., the ability to use language and formal mathematical operations on quantitative symbols, or numbers). I speculate that another human advantage is the ability to outperform animals in cognitive processing that is decoupled from present experience. Perhaps Bownd can comment on this.

While humans tower over their animal kingdom counterparts in verbal mathematics—and verbal anything for that matter—Cantlon and Brannon argue that “there is increasing evidence that the ability to enumerate sets of objects nonverbally is a capacity that humans share with other animal species. That is, like humans, nonhuman animals possess the ability to estimate and compare numerical values nonverbally.” In the present study the researchers asked whether monkeys shared the capacity of human university students to engage in nonverbal arithmetic. To address this question, they compared the two groups’ abilities to add the numerical values of two sets of dots together and choose a stimulus from two options tha refelcted the arithmetic sum of the two sets. The “results indicate that monkeys perform approximate mental addition in a manner that is remarkably similar to the performance of college students.”. The authors interpret their results as supporting the argument for a shared cognitive system for nonverbal arithmetic, which likely reflects an evolutionary link in the cognitive abilities of monkeys and humans. 


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