12 October 2012

Spotting Mistakes

Welcome back. I’ll admit it; I have no trouble spotting people’s mistakes, big or little. Fortunately, I rarely make mistakes. Well, I don’t usually catch my mistakes. You probably would though. You know why? Because we’re primates.

It seems that primates are good at spotting everyone’s mistakes but their own. At least that’s what researchers at Japan’s Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology found with macaque monkeys.

Macaque monkeys, Rosamond
Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, N.Y.

It all starts with people. Earlier studies have suggested that nerve cells (aka, “neurons”) in a specific area of the brain get active when a person either makes a mistake or observes a mistake. (If you've got a map of the brain handy, find the “medial frontal cortex.”) The recent tests with the macaque monkeys monitored neurons in that key area of the monkeys’ brains.

Pairs of monkeys were taught to press a yellow or green button for a reward. Pressing the right button would reward both monkeys; pressing the wrong button would withhold any reward. The monkeys would take turns pressing or watching.

Electrodes monitoring the monkeys' brains showed that a group of neurons lit up whenever a monkey saw its counterpart making an error, but the neurons did not light up when the monkey itself made an error.

How did the researchers know that monkeys spotted the error? The monkeys didn’t lick their lips in anticipation of a reward.

Macaque Monkeys

Before wrapping up, I have to offer a word of warning.

Some readers, like my daughter, on seeing or reading about macaque monkeys, might begin preparing their home to adopt one as a pet. I caution you to proceed with care. If Wikipedia is correct, “Nearly all (73-100%) pet and captive macaques are carriers of the herpes B virus. This virus is harmless to macaques, but infections of humans, while rare, are potentially fatal, a risk that makes macaques unsuitable as pets.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macaque)

Macaque monkey, Rosamond
Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, N.Y.
This anti-pet warning should also be heeded by the more audacious readers who try to replicate the experiment. Unless you are properly trained and equipped to handle macaques, I suggest you review the full research report carefully (see my P.S.), then run the experiment on humans, perhaps younger siblings or kids you are babysitting.

Wrap Up

I doubt this research will put an end to the curious notion of monkey see, monkey do. Still, I hope you understand that the ability to see other monkeys' or people's mistakes is really not a bad, awful thing. That's one way to learn. Watching me trip over the curb should give you a pass on tripping over that same curb as well as many curbs to come.

The problem, of course, is when those spotting your mistakes giggle, smirk or feel obligated to point out your mistakes, every mistake. I myself wouldn’t do any of those. Clearly, some primates have evolved more than others.

Thanks for stopping by.


Research report in Nature Neuroscience:
ScienceNews report of study:
ScienceNews for Kids report of study:

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