“ you can just dress your satellite in a thermal cloak. ” — SEBASTIEN GUENNEAU, PAGE 19
In the News
to tell words
reading may rely on visual
skills shared by all primates
By Bruce Bower
Baboons hang out in the bush, not in bookstores. Yet these avid nonreaders can learn to tell written, real words from
nonsense words, a new study finds.
That surprising achievement is not
the same as reading, say psychologist
Jonathan Grainger of the University
of Aix-Marseille in France and his colleagues: Baboons tested in the new
study didn’t attach meanings to words.
Crucially, though, these animals demonstrated that the roots of deciphering
alphabetic script lie in brain functions
that have nothing to do with language,
Grainger’s team reports in the April 13
“We think our baboons learned to
distinguish between specific combinations of letters that mostly appear
in words versus combinations of letters that mostly appear in nonwords,”
Courtesy of J. fagot
If so, his investigation challenges the
long-standing assumption that knowledge about spoken language informs the
earliest stages of reading acquisition.
According to that perspective, children
get the literary ball rolling by matching
written letters to corresponding speech
Baboons such as this one learned to distinguish real words from nonsense words
in a new study. The work suggests that the initial stages of learning to read
involve purely visual recognition of letters and letter combinations.
Instead, Grainger proposes, reading
initially taps into brain regions that recognize different objects by sight and that
evolved in monkeys and humans — and
perhaps all primates. The baboons in
the study drew on this capacity to track
pairs of letters that distinguish real from
bogus words. That knowledge enabled
the monkeys to learn dozens of four-letter English words and to tell whether
new four-letter sequences qualified as
words or not.
“For the first time, we have an animal
model of a key component of literacy
—the recognition of the visual word
form,” comments cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene of the
INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging
Unit in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.
For the new investigation, Grainger’s
team studied six baboons housed in a
research facility with indoor and outdoor areas. Monkeys had free access to
touch-screen computers, which they
could reach through openings in a
In a series of computer sessions, the
baboons learned to recognize English
words, such as done and vast, and to distinguish actual words from four-letter
nonsense strings, such as dran and virt.
Animals received food if they touched a
cross on a computer screen after seeing
a word, or if they touched an oval shape
after seeing a nonword. New words were
presented to baboons as the animals’
pool of learned words expanded.
Over a month and a half, individual