Is Bonzo Counting Sheep at Bedtime?

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Math-phobics of the world take heart — if a monkey can do it, anybody can. Researchers at Kyoto University have taught a female chimp named Ai to count and manipulate numbers. In an article published in a forthcoming edition of Nature, researchers report that Ai was usually able to memorize and repeat sequences when flashed with any five numbers between 1 and 9 in random order — putting her at least on par with the average preschooler. Adult humans, in contrast, usually have a difficult time remembering more than seven random numbers (hence the length of phone numbers). Animals have long shown the ability to memorize a number sequence by, say, counting to five, but researchers hadn't previously confirmed that the animals actually understood the concept of counting or were simply parroting their trainers. But since it presents the numbers at random, the Kyoto study offers some pretty conclusive proof that animals can actually grasp the building blocks of mathematics.

No, this doesn't mean a chimp will be behind the register of your local A&P sometime soon. But it does mean we're approaching a greater understanding of the animal mind. The goal of animal cognition research is usually to shine light on how human intelligence differs from animal intelligence, and, beyond that, to gain insight into just exactly what intelligence is. Coming soon to your local zoo: standardized testing for growing monkeys.