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  • Chimpanzees show a level of working memory similar to seven-year-old children.

    Chimpanzees show a level of working memory similar to seven-year-old children. | Photo: Reuters

Published 25 July 2019

The working memory (WM) is a core brain function utilized when comprehending, processing and manipulating information.

The working memory of chimpanzees functions very similarly to that of a seven-year-old child, says a new joint study by researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Austria's University of Veterinary Medicine.

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"Chimpanzees exhibited performance levels comparable with human school-age children ... (while performing) an intuitive working memory task that does not rely on extensive training," the study concluded.

Working memory (WM) is a core brain function utilized when comprehending, processing and manipulating information. It's an undiscovered territory for science, however that didn’t stop a team of researchers from banding together to investigate primate mental abilities.

Gathering a group of test subjects, the experts presented a set of boxes which the chimps had previously scouted out for food and marked the response, rotating the boxes alternately. The majority of the primates showed positive results, with some remembering over four items per test.

However, when tasked to seek out food from a second set of boxes, their performance did see a decrease.

Still, researchers noted that chimps used spatial cues and object features to identify and remember which boxes had been checked.

In their study, lead researchers Christoph Volter, Roger Mundry, Josep Call and Amanda Seed said, “Together, these findings show remarkable similarities between human and chimpanzee WM abilities despite evolutionary and life-history differences.

“However, this direct comparison might be hampered by the processing strategies that humans typically adopt in these tasks and that can reduce the memory load.

“The search strategies (or the lack thereof) seem to be a more promising candidate for a dividing line between humans and chimpanzees than memory capacity per se.

“Future work might further explore how such processing strategies develop and to what extent they can also be found in non-human animals,” the study stated

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