In what seems like a blow for humanity, a very smart chimpanzee in Japan crushes any human challenger at a number memory game.
After the numbers 1 through 9 make a split-second appearance on a computer screen, the chimp, Ayumu, gets to work. His bulky index finger flies gracefully across the screen, tapping white squares where the numbers had appeared, in order. So far, no human has topped him.
Ayumu’s talent caused a stir when researchers first reported it in 2007. Since then, the chimp’s feat has grown legendary, even earning him a starring role in a recent BBC documentary.
But psychologist Nicholas Humphrey says the hype may be overblown. In an upcoming Trends in Cognitive Sciences essay, Humphrey floats a different explanation for Ayumu’s superlative performance, one that leaves humans’ memory skills unimpugned: Ayumu might have a curious brain condition that allows him to see numbers in colors. If Humphrey’s wild idea is right, the chimpanzee’s feat has nothing to do with memory.
“When you get extraordinary results, you need to look for extraordinary ideas to explain them,” says Humphrey, of Darwin College at Cambridge University in England.