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Unlocking ‘theory of minds’- Apes aren’t such poor as we thought!

Unlocking ‘theory of minds’- Apes aren’t such poor as we thought!

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In Summary

Recent studies, especially the one from Duke University shows enough data to prove that Apes undeniably has some serious mind-reading capability, roughly matching that as of a 2-year-old child.

Editor Posted by Ansheed

Theory of Mind

This isn’t some science show ripping apart the human brain to collecting information, but simple exploration on how human mind would attribute various mental abilities like intents, knowledge, wish, belief, pretention etc. But the expedition is not limited to the human mind, it is spread across the entire animal kingdom. Some would recollect ‘theory of mind’ in relation to the false belief task.

The famous ‘Sally-Anne’ test would explain how the false belief task is studied. Human mind often processes the data from the perspective of both first (us) and second person, where the most relevant one chose according to the situation. In ‘Sally-Anne’ test children are shown a video or plot of Sally, a girl who has a marble, a basket, and a wooden box. Sally put the marble in the basket and leave the room, it is when Ann enters and swap the marble from basket to box and leaves the room. Now when Sally returns where does she look in the first hand?  If you said the basket, you are right like the majority, where a small population with mental impairment would fail the test.

Amazing Apes!

In order to study if Apes, in fact, has similar false belief capabilities as that of human, researchers from University of Duke conducted an experiment with 30 apes of which 14 are chimpanzees, 9 are bonobos and 7 are orangutans. The false belief task for apes was slightly modified from ‘Sally-Anne’ to ‘The King Kong’ version. The researchers made one of their colleague dress like a chimpanzee resembling a King Kong who steals a stone from a man (who hid it in the first box) and scares him away. The Kong places the stone in the second box, but later change his mind and takes it away. Now, when the man returns where should he look first?

Logically we humans might have answered the first box, right? So does the apes too! Scientists used advanced motion trackers having IR facility to track the eyesight of apes. With other computer aids, they studied the cognitive ability of apes when the man returns. 22 out of 30 apes looked on the boxes, while 17 of them stared at the first box. The study on ‘false belief’ task for apes suggests they process information similar to the way we humans do.

More to study

Unlike other creatures, Apes share a close ancestral relation with the humans. Maybe this ancestral relation might have gifted them at least some of our cognitive ability. They have a complex behavioral and social mind, where apes use their cognition to choose over partners, learn how other chimps think, remember their spouse and family etc. With this study, it was clear that there is more to the list of unknown in the animal kingdom which might help us unlock the mind of animals!


Great apes anticipate that other individuals will act according to false beliefs. Krupenye C, Kano F, Hirata S, Call J,, Tomasello M,. Science. 2016 Oct 7; 354(6308):110-114.