Researchers at Harvard University Medical School have taught rhesus monkeys to do math by accomplishing the one thing my apathetic high school algebra teacher never could, demonstrating that it has a practical purpose.

According to Live Science, researchers taught the monkeys 26 symbols, including the 10 Arabic numerals and 16 letters, enough for the monkeys to count to 25. Each symbol was associated with between 0 and 25 drops of juice or orange soda as a reward, so, naturally the monkeys quickly realized that bigger numbers are better. Mmmm, orange soda.

The monkeys, when presented with screens that allowed them to choose between two symbols, chose the larger one with more than 90 percent accuracy.

When shown sets of added symbols, they even learned to choose the one with the largest sum and the biggest reward. Just to make sure it was more than memorization, the scientists trained the monkeys on a whole new set of symbols. Although accuracy went down, they were still able to add to get the bigger reward.

“The monkeys want the most of whatever is out there, and this is just one of many ways to figure out the best way to get the most,”  said the lead study author, neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone.

Previous studies have shown that many animals can figure out if a cluster of dots is larger or smaller, although their guesses get a lot wronger when the dot piles get bigger and closer in size. Recognizing symbols allows for more accuracy.

“They turned out to be like us — more accurate when values were represented by symbols than by the number of dots,” Livingstone said. “It tells us what good symbols are.”

Rhesus monkeys are about 25 million years apart from us in evolutionary terms, by the way, so their math tests are on  a pretty tough curve. The research helps scientists to understand just how far these skills go back in evolutionary terms.

Livingtsone said that the next step will be teaching the monkeys to multiply. I just hope they have an easier time with it than I did with my elementary school multiplication tables.

[Source: Live Science]

Image by Margaret S. Livingstone



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