Non-adjacent visual dependency learning in chimpanzees

Sonnweber, R., Ravignani, A., & Fitch, W. T. (2015). Non-adjacent visual dependency learning in chimpanzees. Animal Cognition, 18(3), 733-745. doi:10.1007/s10071-015-0840-x.
Humans have a strong proclivity for structuring and patterning stimuli: Whether in space or time, we tend to mentally order stimuli in our environment and organize them into units with specific types of relationships. A crucial prerequisite for such organization is the cognitive ability to discern and process regularities among multiple stimuli. To investigate the evolutionary roots of this cognitive capacity, we tested chimpanzees—which, along with bonobos, are our closest living relatives—for simple, variable distance dependency processing in visual patterns. We trained chimpanzees to identify pairs of shapes either linked by an arbitrary learned association (arbitrary associative dependency) or a shared feature (same shape, feature-based dependency), and to recognize strings where items related to either of these ways occupied the first (leftmost) and the last (rightmost) item of the stimulus. We then probed the degree to which subjects generalized this pattern to new colors, shapes, and numbers of interspersed items. We found that chimpanzees can learn and generalize both types of dependency rules, indicating that the ability to encode both feature-based and arbitrary associative regularities over variable distances in the visual domain is not a human prerogative. Our results strongly suggest that these core components of human structural processing were already present in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.
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