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Monkeys Can Do Basic Math Using Symbols
Editor's Note: This article was provided by our partner, RealClearScience. The original is here.
It has been long thought that one of the characteristics that makes humans unique is our ability to learn and manipulate symbols for communication. However, this notion is starting to slowly unravel. Koko the gorilla knows sign language, and Alex the parrot was probably the most well-spoken bird to have ever existed. Also, a chimpanzee was trained to use Arabic symbols to add up sums as large as 4, and monkeys were taught to add dots together.
But that's all child's play; monkeying around, if you will. Now, PNAS reports that a team of Harvard and Yale researchers has trained rhesus macaque monkeys to recognize two sets of symbols, with 26 symbols in each set. And the monkeys demonstrated an ability to add them together!
The monkeys were given a touch-screen device that was divided in two halves. In the first stage of the experiment, the monkeys had to determine which side had the greater amount. First, they had to examine dots. Second, they had to examine Arabic numerals (1-9) or letters (which represented numbers 10-25). Finally, they had to examine Tetris-like symbols which represented numerical values. To keep the monkeys playing, they were given drops of liquid treats that corresponded to the value they chose, regardless of whether they picked the right answer. (For example, if the choice is between 4 and 8 and the monkey picked 4, he would get four drops.) Obviously, larger values mean more treats, so the monkeys had an incentive to learn how to recognize the larger value.
In the second stage of the experiment, the monkeys were again prompted to choose the greater of two values. This time, one side displayed two symbols ("addends"). The monkeys had to determine if the sum of the addends was greater than the single value on the other side of the screen. It took them several weeks to get the hang of this, but they eventually caught on.
But the researchers weren't satisfied with simply knowing that monkeys could do basic math. They wanted to know what the monkeys were thinking.
Digging more deeply into the monkeys' selections, the authors discovered that, at first, the monkeys were ignoring the smaller addend. For example, if one side of the screen displayed 3 and 7, the monkey essentially ignored the 3. Only after several weeks did the monkeys learn that they needed to add 3 and 7 together to determine the correct answer. Even then, the monkeys greatly undervalued the smaller addend.
This result, however, does not necessarily demonstrate that monkeys were performing a calculation. It is possible that the monkeys had simply memorized number combinations. To determine if the monkeys were actually doing math or were simply recalling memorized patterns, the researchers tested the monkeys with another addition task utilizing the Tetris-like symbols. If they were memorizing symbols, it should take the monkeys just as long as it did previously to determine the correct answers. However, they were much faster at learning this task. This implies that pattern memorization is an unlikely explanation. Instead, the monkeys had transferred the skill of arithmetic to evaluate the Tetris-like symbols.
More evidence in favor of calculation rather than memorization occurred when the monkeys were presented with choices such as 5 + 7 versus 8. A monkey may be inclined to pick 8 because the number 8 is larger than both 5 and 7. However, 8 is the incorrect answer. Even on this difficult task, the monkeys more quickly learned how to pick the correct answer using the Tetris-like symbols, lending further support to the conclusion that the monkeys had learned arithmetic with the numerals/letters and transferred the skill to a new set of symbols.
As impressive as these results are, the monkeys' arithmetic was not terribly accurate if the compared values were similar. For example, choosing between 4 + 6 and 9 was a bit too difficult. So, you may want to hold off on hiring a chimpanzee accountant.
Source: MS Livingstone et al. "Symbol addition by monkeys provides evidence for normalized quantity coding." PNAS. Published online before print: 21-Apr-2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404208111
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How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
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