Our great ape cousins are on the same wavelength as us, it seems. Research suggests that they’re able to use their own experiences to anticipate the actions of others – evidence for a ‘theory of mind’.
Theory of mind is the ability to understand that others have different beliefs, intents and emotions to our own. For humans, this is a crucial aspect of being able to live in a functioning society.
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The question of whether other animals have a theory of mind is a controversial one. Much of the research has focused on non-human primates, who are the closest animals to us in evolutionary terms.
In the latest study, led by Dr Fumihiro Kano at Kyoto University, three species of great ape (chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans) were split into two groups.
Each group was introduced to a different barrier, both of which looked identical from afar, but, when seen up close, the apes discovered that one barrier was opaque, while one was see-through.
The apes then watched a movie while having their gaze tracked. In the movie, a human watched an object being hidden under a box, hid behind a barrier as the object is removed, and then returned to look for the object.
The barrier looked identical to those experienced by the apes, so the experiment was designed to find out whether the apes would be able to infer the human’s ability to see through the barrier, based on their own experiences.
The apes who had seen the opaque barrier spent more time gazing at the box where the object was previously hidden – indicating that they anticipated the human would look there first. The apes who had seen the transparent barrier didn’t focus on a specific location – they knew that the human had seen the object being removed.
So, although both groups of ape saw the same video, they anticipated the human’s actions differently, according to their past experiences with the barriers.
“We are excited to find that great apes actually passed this difficult test,” said Kano. “The results suggest that we share this ability with our evolutionary cousins.”