working memory

Working Memory – Chimpanzees vs. Humans

By Anupum Pant

At least in one known cognitive area, chimpanzees prove to be far smarter than human beings. While it is possible for humans to train themselves up to some extent at it, they lack the capacity for an excellent working memory. On the other hand, chimps naturally display a remarkable working memory.

So, naturally the next question we’d ask – what exactly is working memory and how can I beat chimps at it?

But before that is answered, let us have a look at this study conducted by Japanese scientists.
In the study, scientists use a test where numbers from 1 to 9 are arranged on a screen randomly. The test taker is given a chance to remember all the nine positions. When the subject is ready, the areas go blank and the user is required to recall all the nine numbers in sequence. One mistake and the subject has to start over. In the test, we see this chimpanzee named Ayumu showing remarkable ability in terms of working memory. The opponent human loses badly.

BTW at this test, the chimp Ayumu, can now recall 19 numbers in sequence without making a single mistake. Not just Ayumu, this knack is observed in all chimps.


As the researcher mentions, chimps are not the same as humans. Both humans and chimps had a common ancestor several millions of years ago. Now, both of these species have evolved in their own ways for all these years. While they’ve gotten good at something, we’ve picked up different abilities. You don’t have to feel bad about it.

This ability to actively hold multiple pieces of information in the mind and play with them has helped these chimps to survive in the wild by helping them to make quick decisions. As a result, they have evolved to master it.

Training + Caveat

Although you can train yourself to have an amazing working memory, you’ll probably never be able to beat chimps. Also, you should know that very few humans have a nearly equal level of working memory as compared to chimps, and these are the people who are affected by a mental disability called the Savant syndrome. It is beyond common humans to train themselves to chimp-level-working memory.

A game known as n-back, used as a test and an exercise tool can help you to master your working memory. The game starts easy. Then you move on to the second level where things straight away move from easy to difficult. The next levels seem impossible at first. But it has been proved that this game can help you to improve your working memory. The harder you train, the better you get at it; of course, never as good as Ayumu.

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