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She looks at me, then presses a brightly coloured symbol on an electric keyboard. From a voice synthesizer attached to the keyboard her words emerge. ‘Does the visitor have a surprise?’ she asks. ‘Yes, it’s in the refrigerator,’ I answer. ‘Do you want me to get it?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. I return with a pot of strawberry jelly. ‘Do you know what it is?’ ‘Jelly,’ comes the synthesized reply. This conversation may seem unremarkable, but it is an example of an astonishing scientific breakthrough. For sitting at the computer keyboard is a 14-year-old chimpanzee called Panabisha. Researchers at the language research centre of Georgia State University in Alabama have, for the first time, taught an ape how to ‘speak’ to humans Panabisha talks through a computer that produces a synthetic voice as she presses keys on a specially designed keyboard. The keyboard has about 400 keys, each with a symbol. Some symbols have simple meanings such as ‘drink’ or ‘apple’, others express more abstract concepts such as ‘up’, ‘give me’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘help’. The apes have to learn all the symbols and then construct sentences by pressing keys in the right order. The computer ‘speaks’ the words by flashing them on a screen. Panabisha’s linguistic skills are impressive She has a vocabulary of 250 words and understands 3,000 more – she has been brought up listening to English from birth. She can construct relatively complex sentences, such as ‘Please buy me a hamburger’. She knows the difference in meaning between ‘go outside and get the ball’ and ‘take the ball outside’. She can talk about feelings because the symbols board includes concepts like ‘regret’. She remembers ‘yesterday’ and understands ‘tomorrow’. Duane Rumbaugh, the university’s professor of psychology and biology, who is director of the centre, says, ‘This is exciting research. Panabisha can understand spoken words and responds with appropriate replies. It shows that, like us, apes have the power of thought and reasoning. Our tests suggest that the animals have the language and mental skills of a four-year-old child.’ Panabisha has gone further than just learning to speak. She is teaching the same skills to her one-year-old son Nyota, who has developed a vocabulary similar to that of a one-year-old child. He hasn’t said any whole sentences yet, but his early start means he may soon overtake his mother. Recently Panabisha has even started writing words on the floor using chalk, apparently learning letters from the computer screens. Humans have been trying for years to find ways of communicating with apes. In the 1920s scientists tried unsuccessfully to teach them to speak, but in 1979 two American scientists taught a chimpanzee to use the sign language which is used by deaf and dumb people. The chimpanzee learnt a hundred signs and was able to construct many short sentences as well as teaching the signs to other chimpanzees. But the recent experiments with apes and the voice synthesizer have shown that these animals are far more capable of learning to communicate with humans than was previously thought. Now Professor Rumbaugh has been given a US government grant for a project to see if apes can really learn to speak. Until recently it had been thought that this was impossible because they couldn’t produce the wide variety of sounds used by humans. But then the professor’s researchers noticed that some apes were successfully copying human words and phrases. The sounds were distorted, but recognizable.
Some scientists believe that the discoveries in Atlanta demand a fundamental change in our attitude to our closest animal relatives. If apes can communicate and reason, do they have souls? Should they be given ‘human’ rights, as has already been proposed in the New Zealand parliament? It is a question that medical researchers, who use chimpanzees to study diseases such as Aids and cancer, may find difficult to reconcile with their work. As one scientist said, ‘It’s one thing to look into a cage at a lot of dumb animals. But if they start talking back to you, it makes you wonder what gives us the right to put them there.’ Visiting a zoo may never be the same again.
Anyone can do it
David Thomas failed all his maths exams and left school with no qualifications, yet this 30-year-old fire-fighter has just gone into the Guinness Book of Records by reciting from memory 22,500 digits of the mathematical constant, pi. After five months of training, in which he spent ten hours a day memorizing a quarter of a million digits, David Thomas took part in a 16-hour mental battle. Witnesses watched in awe as Thomas set a new European record, earning the title ‘Most Powerful Memory in the Western Hemisphere’. David says, ‘My education was very limited. My father left home when I was six years old, and my mother and stepfather didn’t open my eyes much. When I was at school I was hopeless. I couldn’t remember anything, but now I can remember more facts than anyone in Europe. I think of myself as a mental athlete. If there was a memory Olympics, I’d have a good chance of a gold medal.’ If they are given random numbers to learn, such as telephone numbers, most people can memorize only between seven and ten digits. So how does Thomas do it? ‘One night I was watching a TV programme and there was an interview with a man called Dominic O’Brien, who had been the world memory champion five times. He can remember, among other things, the answers to all 7,500 Trivial Pursuit questions! He used to be a gambler, and he wasn’t particularly successful until he developed his own mnemonics, or mental memory aid, for each card in order to remember which cards had already been dealt and which ones hadn’t. Once he had perfected his system he began to win serious money.’ Thomas became fascinated by O’Brien’s theory that anyone can improve their memory by using specialized techniques. These techniques involve linking everything to familiar people or objects. ‘If you want to remember a phone number for example, you have to give the numbers life. Sometimes I associate a number with a person. Number 10 for me is always the Prime Minister (who lives at number 10 Downing Street) and 50 is my uncle John who died at that age. Sometimes if I want to remember a number, e.g. 42, I take the fourth and second letters of the alphabet (D and B) and then think of somebody, e.g. David Bowie. Or if I’m trying to memorize a pack of cards, the four of hearts would be DH (Dustin Hoffman the actor): D stands for ‘four’ and H stands for ‘hearts’. Once you have learned the system you never forget. If David is trying to remember facts he also links them to an image. ‘For instance, if I was trying to memorize the name ‘Tom Cruise’, I would think of his film Top Gun, and that leads me to images of guns and cruise missiles. If I was trying to remember a place name, for instance ‘Quito’, the capital of Ecuador, I might think of a ‘key to’ open a door. You might wonder what the point is of being able to remember 22,500 numbers. But David is soon going to appear on TV’s Record Breakers, and this week he is teaching memory training and speed-writing at Huddersfield University. His fees are £600 a day. He is sure that the future holds a lot more for him than a job as a fire-fighter. ‘The future is about finding out what our natural capacities are,’ he says. ‘There is no limit to what our minds can do.’ Adapted from the Daily Mail
Telepathy … the proof really is all in the mind
1 A major new study into hundreds of experiments in telepathy carried out over the last ten years has found no evidence that it really exists. Researchers claim that while many people have strange, even bizarre experiences in their lives, almost all can be explained by coincidence. Psychologists Dr Richard Wiseman, an expert in the paranormal from the university of Hertfordshire, and Dr Julie Milton, came to their conclusions after looking at 1,200 published scientific investigations into telepathy from all over the world. After going through the results, they found that they were exactly what you would expect from pure chance alone. 2 Most serious research into telepathy follows a set of rules called the Ganzfeld procedure. Under these rules volunteers sit on their own in a room with half ping-pong balls over their eyes and a strong red light to stop visual distractions. In another room a second volunteer is given a picture and is instructed to concentrate on it and transmit the image mentally to the other person. After 20 minutes the first volunteer is shown four pictures and asked to nominate the correct one. Dr Wiseman found that only 27% of the pictures were correctly identified. Although this was slightly more than the 25% you would expect from chance, the difference was not statistically significant. 3 Psychologists say that one reason why so many people still believe in the paranormal is because we are all so bad at judging probability Some strange events which may seem fantastic are actually statistically not so unlikely. For instance, if there are just 24 strangers in a room, there is a 50/50 chance that two people will share the same birthday. If these two meet, it will seem like a coincidence. 4 Other strange events like premonitions are also more likely than people realize. Dr Wiseman has studied the phenomenon of people who dream about death, and then have a close relative or family member die the next day. If you accept that the average person dreams about the death of a friend or a relative once in their lifetime, it is possible to work out the probability that the person will actually die in the following24 hours. The odds are millions to one against. But in a UK population of 60 million, two people will have this frightening experience each week. It may seem like a premonition, but in fact they have just been unlucky.
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