The finding points to one of the keys to human reading. Kids learn the sounds of their ABCs before learning to read, but recognizing word shapes and lengths also plays a stronger-than-suspected earlier role in literacy, the baboon results suggest.
"The baboons aren't reading; they don't attach any meaning to the words other than recognizing shapes," says psychologist Jonathan Grainger of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who led the study, published in the journal Science . "But the point is they can recognize the right ones, and ones close to the right ones."
The experiment found that six baboons could be trained to distinguish a fe"w dozen four-letter words (one learned 308 words) from around 7,800 non-words with about 75% accuracy. Even seeing a word for the first time, the baboons, once trained, were more likely to recognize it as a word, preferring them over the nonsense ones. More remarkably, the researchers found the baboons mistook visually similar non-words for real words in exactly the same pattern as human readers.
"The really striking result is that baboons could distinguish, in a statistical sense, not only words from non-words but (they) saw them the way that human English readers do as well," says neuroscientist Charles Connor of the Mind-Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was not part of the study. "We're seeing reading-like vision processes can occur in a species without language, and that is really surprising."