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Can Other Animals Outdo Our Mental Abilities?

monkey with scientists
Ham, the chimp we sent into space. (Image: NASA)

Ah yes, humanity. The crowning evolutionary achievement thus far here on planet Earth. Everything from small microbes to massive dinosaurs have had their time on this planet to evolve and develop into their full cerebral capabilities. Out of all those billions upon billions of organisms that have been here, we seem to be the only ones to develop the mental capabilities that allow for language, advanced technology, and attempt to quench the curiosity about the natural world both within and light years away. All thanks to our big brains, but can any other animals outdo our mental abilities? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Life has been a part of Earth for billions of years. A mere few tens of thousands of years ago do we start to see proof of life advancing in the realm of cognitive mental capabilities involving critical thinking and self awareness to a large level. Well, this seems like quite the leap considering that we can trace back so much of our own evolution back millions of years. How is it possible that there was a big leap forward? The answer to that involves the small and constant steps that evolution is constantly making. This process allows for slow changes to happen which in turn allow us to be who we are right now. This comes with a trade off though, and that's where things got really interesting in a recent study conducted by scientists at Kyoto University in Japan. Before we begin, just something to think about 43 12 12 001 04 20 9 2 21. Okay, on with the rest of this story!

The common understanding is that though we don't live the longest, jump the highest, run the fastest we still have unmatched abilities in terms of mental capacity. This resembles a sort of thinking that initially put the Earth as the center of the universe. Well, the demotion happened once modern science started to be practiced more regularly. Not only were we not the center of the universe, but we were not the center of our galaxy and our galaxy wasn't even the center piece to the unknown world surrounding us. What a bummer. By in large the world's population has accepted this and moved on. Despite this universal demotion we still proudly held our heads up high based on the notion that we reign supreme in the world of thought. This recent study helps put a little perspective on the state of mental capacity from an evolutionary perspective. Perhaps there's room to share on the advanced mental capabilities bench after all.

In this recent study scientists put young chimps and their short term memories up against older chimps and us humans. Remarkably the younger chimps totally rocked the tests and gave us amazing thinkers something to think about. This test was a numerical patterns test. After some training these chimps were made aware of numbers and were given patterns to recall and recognize on a touch screen test. Regardless of the duration of time, sometimes even just a split second, the chimps were able to recall and recognize numerical patters significantly faster than human subjects. Remarkably they were given distractions and were still able to outscore the humans. How could this be possible? We created the test, right?!?

Over millions of years of evolution, humans developed our language capabilities. Once language started to hit our day to day existence, we had less need for this amazingly sharp short term memory. The purpose of an extremely resilient short term memory would aid greatly in a world where there was no language. One would need to have constant recollection of things they just saw, heard, experienced, and so on. There would be no communication system to enable the transfer of knowledge at that detailed a capacity. So instead our language became an evolutionary adjustment for our brain and we slowly started to branch off into what we now know as human beings. We could now remember and communicate common thoughts among one another at quite the detailed level. After all we did eventually go on to create a member of our species that would write the entire Lord of The Rings series, imagine having to commit that to only short term memory!

This test is a great way to look at our relatives on the various branches of the tree of life and see where we came from and begin to understand the slow changes that have taken place of long spans of time. In addition to that, the recent study also follows in the humbling perspective handed to us courtesy of science. Instead of keeping us as the top dog on all mental accounts, we know we're not the best at short term memory. Are there other mental aspects we have not considered that other creatures may dominate us on?  This notion certainly removes us from the first prize winner on all accounts, but instead allows us to understand that we are the way we are because of evolution and that other creatures are not lesser beings, just different. For example, can you recall those numbers that were listed earlier without looking? It's okay if you can't, we have the ability to communicate to one another in a way that over-time developed thinking and idea-sharing that would one day lead to someone explaining to you the concept of scrolling up. There, no sharp short term memory needed, you can just scroll up.

Now, does this mean that the chimps too will one day follow in our preverbal footsteps? There is no straight answer for that just yet. However, this is more proof that evolution works and is constantly happening. The trade off we experiences was losing an amazing short term memory due to the development of language. Who knows, perhaps a few hundred million years from now there will be a creature that can handle both an amazing short term memory and communicate in a complex language. For now what we know is that there are some creatures that are capable of writing blogs about this topic, while other creatures are way better at short term recollection. No one animal is better, superior, or can insist dominance over the others due to a misguided imaged of themselves. This is a planet of many creatures that can do a great many things to keep things in balance. A little humility could go a long way in helping us find our own balance with our natural world that surrounds us. Also, this is not a reason to panic and embrace fear over a chimp-like creature that develops supreme mental capabilities and starts to unabashedly exploit our planet for its own benefit only. Why not? Because there's a chance that creature already exists.

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia
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