Humans better than monkeys at understanding tools’ use

Thursday, September 17, 2009

LONDON - Humans have an edge over monkeys when it comes to using tools to solve a multitude of problems, according to a study.

In the study, a brain region in humans lighted up on seeing tools being used, but the same effect could not be observed in macaque monkeys.

Thus, the researchers concluded that, in humans, a particular brain region responds to tool use.

This could have enabled early humans to understand how and why a tool worked, because it gave them early insights into cause and effect.

With this knowledge in hand, they could work out in advance how tools could be used or modified to solve a multitude of new problems.

On the other hand, monkeys can be taught to use a tool to obtain a reward, but they have little or no insight into the underlying concepts and forces that make it work.

“It meant humans could understand things much more rapidly,” New Scientist quoted Guy Orban of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, the head of the team that discovered the uniquely human area, as saying.

“To get an associative understanding between tool and reward, monkeys must do things many times to learn by trial and error. But once understanding was genetically programmed to be there, humans could begin solving each new problem from a much higher level,” he added.

The researchers identified the unique area, called the anterior supramarginal gyrus (aSMG), through experiments in which 47 people and five rhesus monkeys watched videos of simple tools being used while their brains were scanned with fMRI.

Two of the monkeys had been trained to obtain rewards beyond their reach by using either a rake or a pair of pliers.

The researchers observed that exactly the same areas of the brain became active in people and monkeys when they watched footage of hands simply grasping tools.

But when they watched videos of tools actually being used, the aSMG became active in the humans alone. It was silent even in the two trained monkeys’.

According to the researchers, the region may be specific to understanding cause and effect in tools alone: other brain regions have been seen to be active in more general studies of “cause and effect”.

“This is only the first step towards use of tools,” said Orban.

The study has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience. (ANI)

Filed under: Monkey

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