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Monkeys Have Numerical Abilities, Two Columbia Psychologists Report

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Prof. Terrace is best known for Project Nim, in which he tried to teach a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky to communicate with sign language. Nim, named for the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, was raised and socialized like a human infant in the mid-1970s. Nim appeared to learn American Sign Language, and eventually mastered a 125-sign vocabulary. However, Prof. Terrace was not convinced that the chimp had demonstrated the ability to create unique sentences, the hallmark of language. After analyzing more than 20,000 different combinations of signs produced by the animal, Prof. terrace concluded that Nim signed mainly to obtain particular rewards and that most of his signed combinations were unoriginal imitations of those uttered by his human teachers.

Ms. Brannon was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. studying the cognitive abilities of monkeys. She joined the Primate Cognition Laboratory because she saw the potential for using Prof. Terrace's serial task, which he developed to study the precursors of language in non-human primates, to ask questions about natural abilities that monkeys might use to represent their environment, such as counting. She was recently awarded a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to continue her experiments on monkey counting, the topic of her Ph.D. dissertation.

The work was supported by a grant to Prof. Terrace from the National Institutes of Mental Health.


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Contact: Bob Nelson, Office of Public Affairs
rjn2@columbia.edu
212-854-6580
Columbia University
23-Oct-1998


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