Thursday, April 12, 2012

Can you raed tihs?

Humans possess the ability to read words even when the interior letters are jumbled, as long as the letters on the boundary of each word remain the same. This is because the positions of letters in most languages are consistent. You know that the words “raed” and “tihs” in the title of this article are not real, because you know how to spell and have used the English language for most of your life. Researchers wanted to see if they could teach baboons to do the same thing.

The scientists conducting this study wanted to see if baboons could tell the difference between real words and jumbled letters. Six baboons were trained to distinguish four-letter English words from strings of letters containing three consonants and one vowel. The baboons were rewarded when they would touch an oval button for real words and a cross when they were nonsense letters. This was not just an example of the baboons learning a memory game to match certain patterns to ovals or crosses. The researchers found that the longer the baboons had used the training program the faster they could differentiate real from fake words. The mistakes would increase based on the similarity of fake words to real ones.

Researchers postulate that the baboons would treat syllables like components of visual objects like the handle of a coffee mug. Letters are part of the word just as the handle is a part of the mug, so we may just be mimicking the way that we identify visual objects rather than through the sounds that syllables make.

Michael Thomas (3)


  1. Although this is interesting, I can't help but think this study is a waste of money. Is knowing that baboons can recognize 4-letter words an important contribution to science? And I'm still not convinced that this isn't just an example of reward conditioning and conditioned memory, rather than actual recognition of the words.

    Posted by Laura Moro (2)

    1. I agree that the experiment does seem to be more of a classical conditioning experiment than recognition of incongruous syllable arrangement. That is how the article made it sound. However, saying that this experiment is a waste of money seems a bit ignorant. This experiment could shed light on the way that humans identify words and perceive language.

      Posted by Michael Thomas (3)

    2. I agree with Laura, although the experiment seems interesting, it doesn't seem to advance science at all. How could this shed light on anything? We already know that baboons are capable of identifying words, why does it matter if they are capable of spelling? How does this benefit us or them?

      Mike Selden (3)

  2. Baboons can't actually speak words, so they would probably only be able to identify words using visual components. (They wouldn't really on things like pronunciation).

    How exactly did the researchers teach the Baboon's which words were real and which were not? Are the baboons actually learning rules of the English language?

    Posted by Joseph Frimpong

  3. I've learnt about this in psych 100 (i think). It talked about how experience and memory played a role in this. But this will always intrigue me. My question would be, why baboons? and have they tried it on other animals as well? I would think animals like dolphins and chimpanzees might make fascinating test subjects.

    -Hermann Kam

  4. It's unfortunate that you can't test the theory on young children who are learning to read, but I do believe linguistics is about memorization, which leads to recognition. We may be able to read words as long as they start and end with the correct letters and are the same length, but one must admit that visually, your brain trips, even if for only a millisecond. What would be really interesting is if baboons were consistently taught how to read (this experiment would have to take years...hundreds, if not thousands) but let's pretend we could do this...train baboons to read and over time see if their brains begin to look more like human brains and if they begin to evolve more rapidly. I talk a little bit about brain evolution in my post 'U.S. Economic Decline Due to Brain Size.'

    Karen Melendez