Skip to content

Chimpanzees’ Extraordinary Memory Skills

By Russell Tenofsky

For over thirty years, Tetsuro Matsuzawa has been studying the short-term memory capabilities of chimpanzees at the Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute in Japan.

Professor Matsuzawa and chimpanzee Ai participate in a short-term memory test.

Professor Matsuzawa’s prime subjects are the 36-year-old Ai, and her 13-year-old adolescent son, Ayumu. The mother and son live with 12 other chimpanzees in a simulated African rainforest at the University’s research center in Inuyama.

Professor Matsuzawa is well-known for a landmark study in which Ayumu out-performed a human in a short-term memory test.

“We’ve concluded through the cognitive tests that chimps have extraordinary memories,” Professor Matsuzawa told The Guardian. “They can grasp things at a glance. As a human, you can do things to improve your memory, but you will never be a match for Ayumu.”

“You can do things to improve your memory, but you will never be a match for Ayumu.”

Professor Matsuzawa argues that chimpanzees’ short-term memory skills are connected to their survival skills.

“They have to be able to think quickly because there are other hungry chimps behind them,” Matsuzawa said. “They have to grasp the situation as quickly as possible and decide where to go.”

No such outside pressure exists for Ai and Ayumu as the mother and son voluntarily participate in the professor’s research.

“Motivation is the second most important thing after freedom,” Matsuzawa said . “It is totally up to them whether or not they show up in the morning, and if they actually start the tests. And I never scold them. I only ever offer them encouragement.”

The chimpanzees living at the Institute have opened up an entire new world of knowledge for Professor Matsuzawa. He now argues that studying the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees is, in fact, studying humans.

“Until I met Ai, the only chimps I knew about were in Tarzan movies,” he said. “But she opened a window into the chimp world. She was my navigator. Studying the remains of our ancestors doesn’t tell us anything about how the mind works. But to know chimps is to know humans.”

Sign up to receive the latest updates on our mission

Find out about opportunities to get involved, breaking news in our cases and campaigns, and more.