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Monkey see, monkey calculate: How are primates’ brains wired for math?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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monkey primate math rule brain neuronLike a lot of humans, monkeys might not be able to do calculus. But a new study shows that they can learn and rapidly apply abstract mathematical principles.

Previous work has shown that monkeys and birds can count, but flexible applications of higher mathematic rules, the study authors asserted, "require the highest degree of internal structuring"—one thought largely to be the domain of only humans.

So researchers based at the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tubingen in Germany set out to see whether rhesus monkeys could learn and flexibly apply the greater-than and less-than rule. They tested the monkeys with groups of both ordered and random dots, many of which were novel combinations to ensure that the subjects couldn’t have simply memorized them. The monkeys were cued into applying either the greater-than or less-than rule by the amount of time that elapsed between being shown the first and second group of dots.

"The monkeys immediately generalized the greater than and less than rules to numerosities that had not been presented previously," the two researchers, Sylvia Bongard and Andreas Nieder, wrote. "This indicates that they understood this basic mathematical principle irrespective of the absolute numerical value of the sample displays." In other words: "They had learned an abstract mathematical principle."

But the researchers were after more than simple ape arithmetic. "If and how mathematical rules can be represented by single neurons," they wrote, "has remained elusive." So during the experiment, they recorded the activity of randomly selected neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortexes of the rhesus monkeys. They chose that region of the brain because functional imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that rule-based arithmetic activates that part of the brain in humans, too. 

The data revealed that in the observed part of the brain, the majority of the neurons selected were involved in applying the mathematical rules (with equal portions activating for the greater-than and less-than applications) rather than obtaining and retaining the sensory details. The researchers concluded that this begs for a processing model that has "specific ‘rule-coding’ units that control the flow of information between segregated input, memory and output."

What does this mean for us, the only calculator-punching primates? The researchers noted that it likely points to a much older evolutionary root to abstract math: "These neuronal circuits…could readily be adopted in the course of primate evolution for syntactic processing of numbers in formalized mathematical systems."

The research was published online January 18 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image of rhesus monkey courtesy of iStockphoto/GlobalP

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  1. 1. fyngyrz 4:05 pm 01/18/2010

    "But a new study shows that they can learn and rapidly apply abstract mathematical principals. "

    Yes, or even PRINCIPLES.

    Is there an editor in the house? Hello?

    Link to this
  2. 2. dskan 4:22 pm 01/18/2010

    Applying principals is much more impressive than applying principles. Very impressive. Hail our monkey overlords!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Robin Lloyd 5:03 pm 01/18/2010

    Thanks. We have fixed this spelling.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Spin-oza 10:04 pm 01/18/2010

    Hmmm… now what is it exactly that makes humans so superiorly unique… so arrogant? Oh, yeah… deception… we are really, really good at de-cep-tion… prolific lying.

    Yuppers, we are much more primate animal than the absurdly bogus notion of biblical "special creation", LOL. Only when as a society, we appreciate our very close linkage with all mammals, especially primates, will we achieve a proper humilty and appreciation of our place in a Universe, naturalized by science… the Cosmos.

    Countless animals have suffered greatly… for the idle, wanton amusement of a short-sighted, selfish humans.

    Wake up.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Spin-oza 10:05 pm 01/18/2010

    Hmmm… now what is it exactly that makes humans so superiorly unique… so arrogant? Oh, yeah… deception… we are really, really good at de-cep-tion… prolific lying.

    Yuppers, we are much more primate animal than the absurdly bogus notion of biblical "special creation", LOL. Only when as a society, we appreciate our very close linkage with all mammals, especially primates, will we achieve a proper humilty and appreciation of our place in a Universe, naturalized by science… the Cosmos.

    Countless animals have suffered greatly… for the idle, wanton amusement of a short-sighted, selfish humans.

    Wake up.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Spin-oza 10:06 pm 01/18/2010

    Hmmm… now what is it exactly that makes humans so superiorly unique… so arrogant? Oh, yeah… deception… we are really, really good at de-cep-tion… prolific lying.

    Yuppers, we are much more primate animal than the absurdly bogus notion of biblical "special creation", LOL. Only when as a society, we appreciate our very close linkage with all mammals, especially primates, will we achieve a proper humilty and appreciation of our place in a Universe, naturalized by science… the Cosmos.

    Countless animals have suffered greatly… for the idle, wanton amusement of a short-sighted, selfish humans.

    Wake up.

    Link to this
  7. 7. quartz 10:42 pm 01/18/2010

    This is one of those ridiculous theories since 17th century, mere proper wiring doesn’t make apes do math. It is just like a calulator, desiging a more sophisticated circuit doesn’t make it better, without a better processor the wiring is of no use. Applying the same course of reasoning to human beings, mind uses brain as a channel to send and receive data – better channel allows faster response, this is what fMRI activity triggered at certain locations show, also it all depends on how much the mind is willing to use the brain, some people don’t, this is due to natural flaw in the evolution which causes grandoise type delusion.

    Link to this
  8. 8. topsy 10:33 am 01/20/2010

    The mind is an abstact concept created by man, not an actual organ, this thing we percieve as consciousness is merely an amalgam of reactions to sensory input interpeted by the nervous system and the brain only directs the traffic.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Bill Case 11:02 am 01/20/2010

    A question I have always been curious about. How much of mathematical thinking is connected to language centres of the brain?

    I have always thought of mathematics as just a specialized language in which humans have tried to strip away all the nuances and extra meanings ordinary language might have and replace words with symbols. That is, all mathematical formulas can be described in ‘plain language’ and vice versa.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Spin-oza 2:23 pm 01/20/2010

    TOPSY is of course correct, responding to the dualistic nonsense of QUARTZ’S comment. There are without doubt neural-correlates of consciousness… and zero evidence for some "mind" thing orchestrating, by completely unknown means, the marvelously evolved, physical human brain.

    Yup… there is no silly "soul-based" "mini-me"… used in a neuro-biolobical sense, surviving our death, and controling our lives. Sheesh!

    Link to this
  11. 11. greggerg 5:54 pm 01/21/2010

    For me a less-than/greater-than test is like comparing which apple is bigger. Does it really demonstrate mathematical skills ? Or maybe just basic survival instincts.

    Link to this
  12. 12. okburt75 12:18 pm 11/29/2010

    Sanislas Dehaene and other cognitive scientists have, for some time, been chipping away at the notion that mathematics is some sort of divine gift bestowed upon humans. Greater than or less than, is part of what Dehaene termed subitization – the ability to quickly discern if one pile of objects contains more or less than another, and to quickly note the difference between 1, 2 and 3 objects; something even young babies can do as well as a number of animal species. Math, or more precise arithmetic, is not a divine gift but is simply another tool that we, as well as other species, found useful for survival.

    Link to this

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