The (Monkey) Business Of Recognizing Words by Jon Hamilton
But here’s the amazing thing: Dan and the other baboons also learned to tell whether a string of letters they’d never seen before was an English word. That’s something first-graders learn to do when they start reading, but scientists had assumed that children were simply sounding out the letters to decide whether they make sense.
Of course, the baboons couldn’t do this because they’re not learning to read a language they already speak. They had to rely on a part of the brain that can tell whether objects fit a known pattern.
Michael Platt, who directs the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, says he was surprised by what the baboons were able to do.
“I was really looking for holes to poke in this study, but it was very difficult to find any because it was really beautifully done,” he says. “And I think the linchpin here was that the baboons, once they had learned the rule, could generalize to new words that they had not seen before.”
Platt says when you think about it, the finding makes sense, given what’s known about human and animal brains. “Brains are always looking for patterns,” he says. “They are always looking to make some statistical pattern analysis of the features and events that are in the environment. And this would just be one of those.”
Platt says that’s a big departure from the idea that reading is a direct extension of spoken language.
One questions I have, is why the experiment done in France tested wether the Baboons could recognize English words?