Do apes have imagination? How do they understand pictures? A years-long study of apes performed by cognitive scientist Tomas Persson shows, among other things, that it doesn’t take a human brain to understand pictures as being a representation. Persson’s dissertation, which is now being submitted at Lund University, is the first one in Sweden to focus entirely on the thinking of apes.
When humans compare a picture with reality, it’s often necessary to fill in information that is missing in the picture. For instance, how do we know that a person in a picture is running, as opposed to being frozen in a position?
How do we know that that bright orange thing on Donald Duck is a beak? How do we recognize the motif of pictures we have never seen before? The answer is: we interpret.
Many animals have no trouble recognizing the content of realistic pictures, such as photographs, but can they relate a picture to reality in such a way that they can recognize a drawing? The answer is yes, with reservation.
This is shown by Tomas Persson in his dissertation Pictorial Primates - A Search for Iconic Abilities in Great Apes, which will be publicly defended on February 22.
A review of previous research shows that there are many ways for animals to understand the relation between a picture and reality, but it is only the special case when they understand that the picture represents reality that the picture is being interpreted by being placed it in its proper context and having the missing information filled in.
The conclusion from Tomas Persson’s many years of studying gorillas at Givskud Zoo in Denmark is that it is not easy to teach an ape to relate a picture to reality.
“However, it is unclear whether this is a matter of the training method or the capacity of the apes," says Tomas Persson.
This is because he also found that language-trained bonobos at Great Ape Trust of Iowa in the U.S. can readily name simple non-realistic images that they have never seen before.
“This is the most promising evidence yet that you don’t have to have a human brain to understand pictures as representations. But many studies remain to be done before we will know the extent of this ability in apes. A further question for the future is whether the language training the bonobos have had is the direct reason behind their ability to understand images," says Tomas Persson.
Research on the thinking of apes, which is an expanding field internationally, will be placed on a new footing in Sweden as well, with the research station that cognitive scientists from Lund University are helping establish at Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden. Since humans share ancestors with today’s great apes, this research is important not only for our understanding of cognition as a general biological phenomenon but also for our understanding of the evolution of human thinking. Tomas Persson’s dissertation is hopefully only the first in a long series on this theme in Swedish research.
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