No one is exactly using the words “reading” and “baboons” in the same sentence, but a study published Thursday comes close.
Researchers report in the journal Science that they trained six Guinea baboons (Papio papio) to distinguish real, four-letter English words such as “done” and “vast” from non-words such as “dran” and “lons.” After six weeks, the baboons learned to pick out dozens of words — as many as 308 in the case of the clever Dan, and 81 for Violette — from a sea of 7,832 non-words.
Each of the monkeys performed significantly better than 50 percent, which they would have scored by randomly guessing which letters formed words or non-words. They averaged almost 75 percent right, with some scoring 90.
The study is “extraordinarily exciting,” said cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene of the College de France in Paris, an expert on the neural basis of reading who was not involved in the research. “For the first time, we have an animal model of a key component of literacy, the recognition of the visual word form.”