“The willfulness and self-determination of the apes has also impressed me. If they do not want to participate they have no qualms about making that known, usually by simply ignoring you or just walking away in the middle of a session.”
Like humans, great apes seem to want to be entertained, and if they’re bored they just don’t pay attention. This is one of the things that Dr. Carla Krachun has learned during her 10 years researching great apes.
Dr. Krachun and her collaborators conduct behavioural studies with apes, designing and playing games with the apes to test their cognitive abilities. These games might require the apes to deduce where a treat is hidden, to avoid being fooled by a visual illusion or to figure out what another individual knows or doesn’t know.
“The thing that has surprised me most in working with the apes is the extent of the individual differences we find,” said Dr. Krachun. “I think it may come down to which games they find interesting and fun. The willfulness and self-determination of the apes has also impressed me. If they do not want to participate they have no qualms about making that known, usually by simply ignoring you or just walking away in the middle of a session.”
Through her research Krachun hopes to find out how much apes understand about their own mental processes and others’ mental processes (referred to as “metacognition” and “theory of mind,” respectively). For example, do they know they can experience false mental states, such as when viewing a visual illusion? Do they know that other apes can have unique perspectives on an object or situation, leading to different views and beliefs? Are interactions with others based on what they think is going on in the others’ heads?
Results from Dr. Krachun’s research will provide a better understanding of which elements of cognition we share with apes – our closest living relatives. Ultimately, this can provide insight into the evolution and development of our own abilities, and it could lead to new ways of dealing with human impairments such as autism spectrum disorders.
Dr. Krachun works with populations of chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Emory University) and the Language Research Center (Georgia State University), as well as a population of bonobos at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative in Des Moines, Iowa. She said this collaboration is an enormous asset that provides unique educational opportunities for Memorial students. Last summer, a Grenfell undergraduate student accompanied her to Atlanta and Des Moines to participate in her research and she plans to take a student with her again this summer.