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Remembering the order of information is essential for anyone when participating in conversations, planning daily life, or undergoing education. A new study published in the journal Plus one, indicates that this ability may be unique to humans. Even humans’ closest relatives, such as bonobos, don’t learn order in the same way.

“The study contributes another piece of the puzzle to the question of how mental capacities differ between humans and other animals, and why humans only speak languages, plan space travel, and learn to exploit Earth so efficiently that we now pose a serious challenge,” says Johan Lind, associate professor of ethology. And deputy director of the Center for Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University, “organisms pose a threat to countless other forms of life.”

Previous research at Stockholm University has suggested that only humans have the ability to recognize and remember so-called sequence information, and that this ability is a basic building block underlying uniquely human cultural capabilities. But previously, this sequencing memory hypothesis had not been tested in humans’ closest relatives, the great apes. New experiments show that bonobos, one of the great apes, struggle to learn to order stimuli.

In the recently published book The Human Evolutionary Transition: From Animal Intelligence to Culture (Princeton University Press), ethicists Magnus Enquist and Johan Lind of Stockholm University, and Stefano Ghirlanda, a researcher in psychology at Brooklyn College in New York, lay out a new theory of how Humans are cultural beings. The central idea concerns the difference in how humans and other animals recognize and remember sequence information.

“We have previously analyzed a large number of studies indicating that only humans faithfully recognize and remember sequence information. But although we analyzed data from a number of mammals and birds, including monkeys, there was a lack of information. of the people closest to us. “The relatives, the other great apes,” says Johan Lind.

In a series of experiments, the memory capabilities of bonobos and humans were tested by having them tap on computer screens to, among other things, learn to distinguish between short sequences, including pressing right if the yellow square came before the blue square, or pressing the left of the square shown blue before the yellow square.

“The study shows that bonobos forget that they have actually seen a blue square five to ten seconds after it disappears from the screen, and that they have great difficulty learning to distinguish sequences of the blue square before the yellow square from the yellow square.” “The box is before the blue box, even though they have been trained for thousands of experiments,” says Vera Finken, who is affiliated with Stockholm University and now holds a Ph.D. Student in Great Britain at the Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Newcastle.

In contrast, the study shows, humans learned to distinguish between short sequences almost immediately. However, we have yet to explain exactly how our closest relatives can remember and use serial information.

“We now know that our closest relatives do not share the same mental continuum capabilities as humans. But even if the results suggest that their working memory works in principle in the same way as mice and pigeons, no one has yet demonstrated this in practice,” says Magnus Enquist, Professor Emeritus and one of the founders of the Center for Cultural Development.

The new findings provide further support for the sequence memory hypothesis, which says that during human prehistory, the ability to remember and process sequences evolved, a necessary mechanism for many uniquely human phenomena such as language, the ability to plan, and sequential reasoning.

more information:
Johan Lind et al., Memory test of stimulus sequences in great apes, Plus one (2023).

Journal information:
Plus one

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