Memory: Chimp is Champ!

It didn’t sound like a fair contest: the memory champion of the UK against a lowly chimpanzee. In one corner, Ben Pridmore, a man capable of memorizing all of the cards in a shuffled deck in less than half a minute; in the other corner, Ayumu, a seven year old hairy primate wearing no clothes.

No, it wasn’t fair at all.

As reported in the UK Daily Mail1, both chimp and man watched a computer screen on which five numbers flashed up at various positions before being obscured by white squares, and then had to touch the squares in order of the numbers they concealed, from lowest to highest.

Ayumu hard at work (photo credit: Primate Research Institute Kyoto University)

By the time the competition heated up and the numbers were shown for a mere fifth of a second, the results weren’t even close: while the winner was able to order the numbers correctly almost 90% of the time, the loser couldn’t even manage 33%.

Fortunately, NaturalNews.com2 notes that the loser was gracious in defeat: “It is extremely impressive for anybody,” Pridmore said when asked about Ayumu’s performance. “He is doing something which I think is a really great performance even by human standards, so I’m sort of forgetting he is not a human being. When I bring that into the equation, it makes it overwhelmingly impressive.”

(If you wish to try to avenge Mr. Pridmore’s loss, the good news is that there’s a website3 where you can watch a video of Ayumu in action and then take the memory test yourself. Good luck, our species is counting on you.)

You may be thinking that this is a meaningless fluke, a highly specific area where a chimpanzee just happens to excel, a parlor trick that is not at all indicative of true intelligence. Well, maybe so, but don’t we as humans like to point to these sorts of unique abilities as precisely what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Are we tilting the playing field by giving inordinate weight to the mental gifts that we enjoy, downplaying others and defining intelligence to suit ourselves and our abilities? Perhaps we should ask Ayumu what he thinks…


1The Mail Online, “I’m the chimpion! Ape trounces the best of the human world in memory competition,” January 26, 2008., “Chimpanzee Beats Human Memory Genius in Memorization Competition,” August 3, 2008.

3lumosity games website, visited June 28, 2011.

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  1. CandidShark

     /  June 28, 2011

    Thanks for writing about that. I’d heard that Ben had been beaten but wasn’t sure what the test was or even if it was true. It’s certainly a strong reminder of how much we could learn from our animal friends.

    • Yes, Ayumu is really pretty awesome – if you haven’t seen it already, you should check out this YouTube video of him in action at How does he do that?
      BTW, thanks for your commenter! You are the first commenter ever on AnimalWise (ok, so the blog is less than a week old…). I’ll make sure to save your comment, kind of like some restaurants keep the first dollar bill on display! :)


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