Quirks & Quarks

Do all great ape minds think alike?

New research on our great ape relatives reveals they may have 'theory of mind'
Chimpanzee participating in an eye-tracking test at Kumamoto Sanctuary (Kumamoto Sanctuary, Kyoto University)

The ability to grasp others' beliefs, desires, or motivations, even when they're not driven by reality is considered to be at the heart of human behaviour, and it's been thought to belong exclusively to humans. It's referred to in psychological terms as 'theory of mind.'

But does it exist in our closest relatives, great apes? New eye-tracking technology have allowed researchers to investigate whether they might.  

Experiments done by Dr. Christopher Krupenye, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Dr. Fumihiro Kano of Kyoto University's Kumamoto Sanctuary, illustrate that apes do have a human-like understanding of what others believe. Does it put to rest the idea that humans are the only animals with a theory of mind? Very likely. The researchers see it as an important step forward in understanding ape cognition, and it is the first of its kind as it applies to apes.

The broader implication is that 'theory of mind' extends back at least 13 to 18 million years,  when others apes and humans shared a common ancestor.  The study highlights, as primatologist Frans de Waal says, "the mental continuity between great apes and humans."

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