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Do monkeys wonder?

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Matt Walker Matt Walker | 08:47 UK time, Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Japanese macaque (image: Yukihiro Fukuda)

A Japanese macaque, possibly comtemplating (image: Yukihiro Fukuda)

Do monkeys wonder?

Given the title of this blog, it’s a question I have to ask. Luckily for me, some scientific research has just been published that helps inform the answer.

It’s a less frivolous question than it first seems; getting inside the minds of monkeys tells us much about what it means to be a monkey. And that provides a baseline from which we can ask what it means to be human, and where the differences between us really lie.

Let’s start out by defining what I mean by “do monkeys wonder?”

By it I mean whether monkeys have what researchers call “internal thoughts”.

People have internal thoughts – we know that, because we think them. But it can also be confirmed by neuroimaging studies; which have revealed that our brains have a “default mode of activity”.

Now we might expect that when the brain is actively thinking, the brain itself becomes more active. That’s true.

Sillouette of two nomadic people sitting around a camp fire at sunrise (image: Photolibrary.com)

Is wondering a human-only trait?

But some areas of the brain actually become more active when resting than when they are performing a specific cognitive task. These areas lie at the front and toward the back of the brain, as well as within, and go by names such as the medial prefrontal and medial parietal areas, and the posterior cingulate cortex.

This higher activity is what researchers believe to be the brain’s “default system”. It has been confirmed by neuroimaging techniques including PET (positron emission tomography) scans.

Other studies have also confirmed the presence of this default mode. During a period of rest, blood flow and metabolic activity is higher in these brain areas. This default brain activity also appears to be disturbed in psychiatric patients and people with Alzheimer’s disease.

A number of studies have connected this default brain activity with what scientists call “internal thought processes”. These might include the recall of certain memories about one’s life, ideas that relate particularly to one’s self, thinking about concepts or the meaning of things, considering one’s environment, emotional state or body image, or simply just letting one’s mind wander.

Brain scan of monkey (image: Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (2009), pp. 14463-14471)

A scan of a monkey's brain shows areas that are more active when the brain is "resting" (image: Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (2009), pp. 14463-14471)

Studies also show these brain areas become less active when a person is performing a specific task. In essence, internal thoughts are suppressed while other parts of the brain get on with doing something specific.
Which brings us back to whether monkeys have similar internal thoughts?

Do monkeys, or other primates, think about themselves? Do they reflect, worry, remember, or consider an idea forming in their minds?

In short, do monkeys wonder? Because if they can, our view of monkeys needs to change. Quite profoundly I’d say.

It would mean that we should no longer be surprised that a monkey has found a new way to crack a nut, as we’d acknowledge it had probably been considering the idea for a while.

It would mean that we must accept that these animals too might be concerned for the welfare of their kin, or that they might recall a childhood memory.

When we visit a zoo and look into a monkey’s eyes, wondering what it is thinking, it might even be looking at us right back, wondering exactly the same.

That has some pretty profound implications for the status we give these creatures, and whether we choose to exploit or protect them, care for them and respect them.

So to help answer the question I want to report some results published as part of a scientific review conducted by Dr Masataka Watanabe of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science in Japan.

Common chimpanzee (Arup Shah / NPL)

Do chimpanzees think about themselves? (Arup Shah / NPL)

He tells me that a recent neuroimaging study on anaesthetised monkeys suggested that they too have a default mode of brain activity. A study on awake macaques, published in 2009, shows that monkeys suppress neuronal activity in the posterior cingulate cortex when they are performing a task, while another study on chimpanzees, an ape more closely related to us, suggested that their brains, when resting, retrieve memories and may be involved in some level of mental self-projection.

But no-one had actually performed any neuroimaging to measure whether awake monkeys have the same “default” brain activity that people do.

So Dr Watanabe and colleagues did PET scans of the brains of awake Japanese macaques. They also measured the blood flowing within the key brain areas associated with having internal thought processes.

In all three monkeys tested this way, their brains showed a similar pattern to humans.

“Similar to the human default system, all monkeys showed higher rest-related activity in the medial prefrontal and medial periatal areas,” writes Dr Watanabe in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

In Dr Watanabe’s words: “That suggests that there might be internal thought processes in the monkey.”

Monkeys are intelligent, tool-using animals that live in complex societies. They display deceptive and altruistic behaviours and can even make judgements about fairness.

So it makes sense that they have a degree of social intelligence, Dr Watanabe says, and might process ideas about “self”.

Assamese macaque (image: Manoj Shah / Getty images)

An Assamese macaque looks out onto the world (image: Manoj Shah / Getty images)

So monkeys do wonder it seems.

Dr Watanabe believes this discovery blurs the line between the cognitive ability of ourselves and other primates.

Monkeys don't use language as humans do, but people don' t need language to have internal thoughts either, he says.

"In other words, as far as nonlinguistic internal thoughts are concerned, there might be a continuum in the content of internal thoughts between the human and nonhuman primates."

This research makes me wonder exactly what these monkeys are wondering about.

“Since we have no way to know what kind of internal thoughts monkeys may have, we can only speculate that what they are thinking internally,” Dr Watanabe told me.

“It is possible that they are thinking about what occurred recently and what to do next, such as going out to have a dinner, or going to the next mating partner.”

For example, in Dr Watanabe’s experiment, monkeys were eager to obtain palatable fruit juice, given to them for performing a cognitive task. So the monkeys might have been thinking about the fruit juice which they were not allowed to consume while they were resting, but which they would get by performing the task.

However, “it is also possible that monkey’s internal thoughts are a kind of daydream,” says Dr Watanabe, intriguingly.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Monkeys are intelligent, tool-using animals that live in complex societies. They display deceptive and altruistic behaviours and can even make judgements about fairness."

    Which makes it all the more disgraceful that we take them out of their complex societies to live in barren cages so that we can perform dubious experiments on their brains in labs.

  • Comment number 2.

    I can't believe people are still surprised that animals might have thoughts and emotions, have they never owned a pet!
    Wasn't it the church that put about the myth that animals do not think?

  • Comment number 3.

    By that reckoning, does it mean that they have a soul?

  • Comment number 4.

    Totally agree with willwander and also quote "The question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?".

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Good call willwander. I know we have a tendency to impose our own feelings on to our pets but anybody who has ever owned a dog or cat knows that they are given a rough time by the scientific community.

  • Comment number 7.

    "It would mean that we should no longer be surprised that a monkey has found a new way to crack a nut, as we’d acknowledge it had probably been considering the idea for a while."

    Why would we be obliged to acknowledge this? Scientific discovery, as you'll know, is based on pot luck and perspiration. Does the monkey perspire or was it just plain luck which it then repeated, which any monkey can learn to do.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a matter of fact, pauls32822, yes the Church did state that animals have no souls and dont think. Previous religions viewed animals with a very different respect. Yeah, some of them sacrifices animals but that was because they were viewed as a suitable substitute for humans, hardly the status granted to them by modern religion.

    And yes the scientific community continues to study animals. Mostly this involves no harm to the animals. Sometimes it does. Would you prefer I tested my new drug on you or would you prefer it if we administered it straight to your family when their ill without testing it first? Or how about we jump straight from cells in a dish to assuming a whole human organism will act in extactly the same way huh? I dont like it anymore than you do but its a necessary evil if you want us to make sick people better.

  • Comment number 9.

    Only humans could wonder about whether other living creatures can wonder. Does it matter enough to know this to steal a creature's freedom and experiment on him or her causing distress and pain? Why don't we just observe creatures in their natural surroundings and see that they suffer. Whether they wonder or not is irrelevant because humans can't even define what they mean except by interfering with others.

  • Comment number 10.

    What is the point of discovering whether monkeys wonder when we can't even define what we mean by 'wondering' except by electrical impulses? Why can't we accept that all living creatures have nervous systems that enable them to feel pain and fear?

  • Comment number 11.

    What is a soul?

  • Comment number 12.

    "5. At 10:50 21st Jun 2011, pauls32822 wrote:
    Willwander, clearly the Church created the myth that animals don't think. They are evil after all. That's why the Church does lots of animal sacrifice and the scientific community steadfastly refuses to participate in testing on animals!"

    The church does animal sacrifice? Are you sure you are not confusing yourself with the Jewish faith of the past? I think we would have heard about it if that was really going on!

    I don't think its a huge surprise that animals have a concept of self - they live in relatively complex and organised societies in the main. However, whether that puts them on a par with human is a far broader question and sometimes I think we underestimate man's achievements in the quest to reduce ourselves to animal status to make for a simpler world.

  • Comment number 13.

    Sarcasm receptor malfunctioning United Dreamer?

  • Comment number 14.

    The idea that animals don't have language is a misconception based on a very narrow definition of the word. Any creature which can communicate with others of its species has a 'language', even if it conveys only a handful of basic messages. Gorillas and chimps have learned to 'speak' with humans via sign language. Dogs can even learn to communicate with their owners via body language, different vocalisations and expressions (for example, to say 'I'm hungry', 'I want to go outside', 'I want to play' and so on) . And the pigeons you always see 'blindly' pecking at non-existent food in public squares and railway platforms? Pigeons have excellent eyesight. They know there is nothing there. They are pecking because they want you to know that they would like some food - they are, in essence, begging. So if even pigeons can learn to speak 'human', perhaps we should look at the whole idea of animal language a little bit more closely - and with a far more open mind.

  • Comment number 15.

    LOL is this for real ???? do we really need studies like this. Why would anyone think an animal wouldnt wonder? Of course its mind is going to be active why it is resting. and im a christian!
    Look at it like this. My cat lays on the my bed resting(not asleep) eyes open. All of a sudden it takes a nice stroll to its food bowl. Why is it so hard to believe it would of been thinking of that food the whole time its resting?

  • Comment number 16.

    can i also just point out that because the church states something it doesnt mean every chrisitan believes that.
    You will actually find that its christians who give themselves bad names.

  • Comment number 17.

    I always thought animals do think - I used to be punished in class for asking these questions - eg: do snakes laugh. I reckon there should be more research.

  • Comment number 18.

    I'm not sure about having internal thoughts without language. Sure, you can picture an object without language (but your mind will instantly name it) but to wonder? I can't do that without using language. Maybe it's just me. Try it.

  • Comment number 19.

    Surely the question is not so much whether monkey's do have a sense of wonder or not, but why so many humans apparently don't.

  • Comment number 20.

    Liz and United Dreamer, my comment was merely a criticism of what I see as an unfair tendency to label religion as categorically bad and the secularism as categorically good whenever possible. I am not religious, but I think the modern Church now teaches compassion for animals and people, and it would be unfair to judge any organisation's historical behaviour with today's understanding of science and nature. I also think testing on animals is necessary and can be done humanely.

  • Comment number 21.

    This is actually very important work, despite some of the comments above stating how it is all obvious. The majority of animals do not have the cognitive ability or complex nervous systems required, for example, to even recognise they exist (e.g. the mirror test) or the cognitive ability to form long-term memories. Instead humans are far too prone to assume that Pavlovian conditioning and reflex actions can be taken as emotions or 'love'. After all, I wonder how some of the people above can bring themselves to eat fish, swat a fly or crush a worm if they truly believe it.

    Conversely, there are many who assume all animals are so vastly inferior to humans that we can act with impunity for whom this research may be equally important!

  • Comment number 22.

    @18 FrankVine.....so...by your reckoning, babies, which have not yet develloped language skills, are not capable of thought, or even, by implication, of learning.

  • Comment number 23.

    my cat spends a lot of time gazing at me with a speculative expression through half shut eyes. I believe he is wondering at what point I will become defenceless and edible

  • Comment number 24.

    Monkeys have always shown that they are intelligent. What is worse is how we treat them and experienment on them. There is no excuse for this!

  • Comment number 25.

    Perhaps the similarities in brain patterns tell us more about just how automatic most human thought processes actually are than about how well-considered monkeys' might be...

  • Comment number 26.

    @1 The suffering and possible death of an small number of animals is worth it to further understand how the natrual world works.

    Intelligent or not.

  • Comment number 27.

    @ Skep_tic123

    In a sense, yes.

    We are all sentient beings, so we all have a consciousness.

    Basically your mate Dave from the pub could well have been a orangutan in a past life; didn't you wonder why he liked nuts with his pint?

    On a serious note, yes, apes do have the ability for internal thought, as do all animals.

  • Comment number 28.

    “Since we have no way to know what kind of internal thoughts monkeys may have, we can only speculate that what they are thinking internally,” said Dr Watanabe.

    Apart from the oddity of the grammar, there is an oddity of logic here. 'Internal' thoughts? In a way it seems odd to call thoughts specifically internal. These are presumably the thoughts that are not voiced or shown in explicable behaviour. But the only way we know that thoughts happen is by the connections between what people (and perhaps other creatures) say and do within a framework of life that makes sense. This is the conceptual bit which is (almost inevitably) missing from this kind of research - or at least missing from reports of it.
    This is not to deny that monkeys (and, for all I know, earthworms) go in for something that might be called 'wondering'. However, if the brain activity described in the research deserves a mental epithet like 'wondering', we need to look at how the monkeys behave and what they say (not necessarily in words, but in some form of language) about what is going on. Most philosophers know this; most neuroscientists, for some reason, don't.

  • Comment number 29.

    perhaps all that the similarity in our brain patterns is showing is that most human thought processes are just as automatic as those of monkeys.

  • Comment number 30.

    Which 'Church' is to blame, Church of England, Church of Latter Day Saints, United Reformed Church, Church of Scientology? Define please.

    Default to blame religion for something, bravo, boring.

    I really do think that some animals wonder, think and feel, it's arrogant of humans to think that they wouldn't.

  • Comment number 31.

    in response to the first comment by julianabanana "Which makes it all the more disgraceful that we take them out of their complex societies to live in barren cages so that we can perform dubious experiments on their brains in labs."

    your comment was about research being even more disgraceful due to the fact that monkeys are intelligent & living in complex socities. you imply that this gives them more rights as a creature, which I would dispute. explain why an intelligent animal should have more rights than a slightly less intelligent one from a slightly less complex society

  • Comment number 32.

    In reply to FrankVine, no.18: it is quite hard for those of us who think thoughts not in language to explain, in a useful way, to those of you whose thoughts are entirely in language how we think. I am capable of thinking thoughts in language, and if I were thinking through an arithmetical problem, or planning a talk, I'd do just that. But most of the time, most of my thoughts, are not in language. Nor are they, as some assume, in pictures. My thoughts are just in thoughts. Concepts, I suppose. They move through my head far faster than when I'm thinking in language. Thinking in language must surely slow thought down horribly? Anyway, just so you know: plenty of adult humans think thoughts not in language.

  • Comment number 33.

    I'm a monkey and I wonder. I can also type.

  • Comment number 34.

    It has long been accepted that Archbishops do have very profound thoughts.

  • Comment number 35.

    I have read a god number of the comments on this subject, relating to church, science, social misuse of Primates for our entertainment. It seems to me that the business of our species is to investigate, learn, evaluate, and act on our knowledge of the world we live in. I see little point in pointing fingers at past ignorance as a just comment. A fairer comment surely is what we as a community. society, or culture do in the future.

    In short move on and make it right!

  • Comment number 36.

    Many monkeys certainly look ponderous, but, although it is interesting to consider the answer to this, a more relevant question might be "do most humans think and reason or is their behavior governed by,albeit highly sophisticated, repetition? I don't have an answer, but I could point you towards a number of test subjects driving on the roads this morning that would certainly cause doubt on our general intelligence levels.
    Perhaps monkeys spend their time wondering how humans have gotten where they are.

  • Comment number 37.

    Do monkeys wonder? Yes, WE do...

  • Comment number 38.

    To quote Owen Iles #15, "LOL is this for real ???? do we really need studies like this. Why would anyone think an animal wouldnt wonder?"

    Maybe it is just me but I would expect the purpose of the aforementioned (and other similar) research is to get a definitive answer that can be backed up, with proof, to the original question as opposed to just saying "yes of course animals wonder, it's obvious"

    Inadvertently, it would appear that this is indeed the entire point of science and its foundations... fancy that.

    I am fairly sure that there will be implications or uses for the results and outcomes of such research, be it immediate or in the future. You know... the sort that could lead to groundbreaking treatments for complex neurological disorders, terminal illnesses or 'miracle cures'. Sometimes it is hard to see the bigger picture and think beyond yourself and your own questions but it's important to try I think.

  • Comment number 39.

    There is a continuum of conscious experience from the humble fly right up to ourselves and our moral relationship with animals needs to exist on a similar continuum.

    As a vegetarian I would only consider harming or killing another living thing if it threatens the existence of myself or another.

    In the society we live in killing (for food or clothing) another conscious feeling creature is simply the selfish pursuit of pleasure. We don’t live in the woods anymore! We don’t NEED to do this.

    I would be less concerned with harming or killing a creature lower down the chain of consciousness and more concerned with their pain and suffering the closer we get to human beings.

    Primates are virtually us and so deserve almost the same respect you would bestow on your next door neighbour (unless you’re still waiting for your lawn mower back).

  • Comment number 40.

    Surely the mere fact that you list four quite different mental processes as "possibly linked" to the one mode of observed neural activity is evidence enough that we have no idea what, if anything, the neural activity actually signifies.

    For a monkey to think idly about food is a waste of energy; similarly so for those primates which use sex for social bonding to think idly about sex. If it's for problem solving, the the surprise is that monkeys don't come up with new ays of cracking nuts more often. The sort of self-aware pondering that the author has in mind doesn't seem to be borne out by the behaviour of monkeys in the wild - even Tamarin monkeys lying about the presence of predators doesn't really require self-awareness.

    Unless, of course, you think they're all writing plays about Danish princes...

  • Comment number 41.

    I have often wondered this same question...... and to be honest I have often thought yes. But recently on a trip to Guatemala I got embroiled in a disagreement with a large beastly Monkey. I looked into it's eyes and after staring it down for a good minute or so I punched it in the hard in the face and ran..... this Monkey beast would have killed me had I not taken this drastic action, needless to say my findings are that Monkeys don't have souls and definitely don't wonder!

  • Comment number 42.

    Willander, here is a quote from John Paul II in 1990. " the animals possess a soul and that men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren". Which is a change of tune. Im not really sure how the church spouting anything is used to justify anything to do with science now, namely the use of animals in research. This isnt a discussion about religion so Im not really sure why it has been made into one, there are plenty of forums for that elsewhere. Boring.

    Frank Vine, What?! Deaf people are more than capable of thought, they do not need a language fot it. Maybe it is just you, lets hope so! United Dreamer, clearly there was sarcasm involved

  • Comment number 43.

    We're animals and if we think, have emotions etc, so does the rest of the animal kingdom.

    It was not religion that put this "myth" around. The various faiths have always stated that humans have to look after this world and the it's denizens ( not just humans). The problem was the arrogant individuals who chose to interprit the texts as they saw fit, for short tem gains. Typical behavior for the least intelligent species on the planet.

    Some of you really need to read more widely and take a leaf out of our relatives book. Try cultivating an open mind, your'e showing up your own species shortcommings.

  • Comment number 44.

    Yes, these monkeys are thinking... "How on earth did humans become the dominant species?"
    We humans delude ourselves into thinking we can use anything that exists on our world from animals to minerals and even other humans to exploit as we see fit. View the world from the eyes of our fellow creatures and we would be truly horrified at our uncaring and selfish excesses that threaten their very existence, and in our delusion we fail to see that we are also threatening our own.

  • Comment number 45.

    Fascinating topic, almost certainly the answer is `yes` but for me the most interesting aspect is the linguistics of thought involved, i.e. you're French, you think in French. To say animals don't have language is somewhat narrow minded, how can we possibly have any idea? Our dog understands over 10 distinct phrases "walkies", "Are you hungry?", "Do you want a biscuit?" etc ... but is she understanding English? No, I would suggest reacting to past experiences of what happened when we last said "walkies". Like dogs, many animals I would suspect `live in the now`, does a Lion `think` I'm hungry, let's go and kill an antelope ... Or instinctively know to do it which is where animals differ. We instinctively know to change into second gear in a car, after a while you don’t `think` declutch, move my arm, accelerate etc .. It just happens, the area for instinct in an animal is no doubt far more developed than ours. Does a Japanese Macaque `think` “I know, I’ll have a relaxing bath and ponder the wonders of the universe”, no I don’t think they do.

  • Comment number 46.

    (With reference to KateCopestake, 32). I'll grant you may not think about things in a (natural) language, or by pictures but by some other medium. I doubt many would agree that I think in English as quickly as I write this message. However, when you say you think in concepts, this is essentially tied to your use of language. How do you learn such concepts? How do you think about anything if you have not already learnt about what that thing is? Monkeys can learn certain things, so can cats and so can rats. However, this learning does not equate to the types of things one learns and uses in "human wondering". All creatures have different cognitive capabilities (including humans) and the lack of language sets the bar a lot lower for monkeys than for humans - a monkey remembering cracking a nut is an ocean away from a human wondering about the way someone acted on their 7th birthday. (Perhaps memories are bad examples for they often do involve purely visual or sensual events - but it will work for now to imagine wondering about a particular memory, not simply recalling such a memory). The human's thought is essentially tied up with use of language - how someone acted involves the possession of many concepts involving emotions, social etiquette, the social convention of a birthday, and so on. None of these could make sense without an essentially communicative language - your possession of these concepts is tied up with your use of language (particularly your learning of language). Therefore, whilst one might not think in a language, one's thought is molded by and essentially linked to language. Therefore "Monkeys don't use language as humans do, but people don' t need language to have internal thoughts either" seems a very contentious statement to make. It should be made clear that the types of thoughts one could have without possessing a language are completely different from the types of thoughts one could have if they did possess a language. There seems a strange kind of anthropomorphism here - even if monkeys do wonder, it is obvious what they do wonder will be so far removed from what a human does, it would not be comparable to anything a human thinks, as almost everything one thinks is invariably tied up with the use of language.

  • Comment number 47.

    @26 That is entirely a matter of opinion. I disagree.
    @31 If I inferred that, it was unintentional, as I believe the exact opposite. I do not believe humans have any additional intrinsic rights over animals because we judge ourselves more complex and intelligent than other animals.

  • Comment number 48.

    Oh geez, everyone banging on about cruelty to animals and pets and labs and experiments etc. Just take the article for what it's about and stop getting all sanctimonious holier-than-thou. And for those who can't comprehend the value of this article and the revelations therein, you probably have a monkey brain, too!

  • Comment number 49.

    Surely, it stands to reason that something has to be going on within the brain when any creature is not consciously engaged in the pursuit of some activity or other - at least that's what I'd always thought - never seen a horse or a cow, for instance, gazing out over the landscape.

    To do the research properly all species should be plugged into the machine and have their cortexes imaged, then we could all wonder what they're wondering.

    Must be great being a scientist - I wonder if they wonder what the rest of us are wondering?

  • Comment number 50.

    I would be intrigued to find out what form these thoughts take. When I cogitate it is mostly an internal dialogue in a learned native language. The rudimentary results of animal thinking come from studies where they have lived closely with humans. They will surely have basic fight/flight reactions and memories of threats/possible mating feeding opportunities but is this thought? Let's not overanthropomorphise.

  • Comment number 51.

    I dont want to offend anyone but I struggle to comprehend how people today still believe in 'the soul'. Its an idealistic conceept that doesnt actually exist.

    Of course monkeys wonder our genetic lines are so close. Excellent experiement though well worth the time.

  • Comment number 52.

    The following is the first genuine transcript of a real monkey's internal thought process. It's quite powerful stuff...

    '...I think, therefore I BANANA!'

  • Comment number 53.

    My friends called Chris and Steed really like Monkeys....... I mean really, really like monkeys. To the point where it's kind of weird!

  • Comment number 54.

    I find these bold and clumsy pronouncements intensely irritating and inane. Imagine I wrote a blog about the latest research I had published investigating the boiling temperature of water when observed then published an article on the ramifications of my conclusion that, contrary to popular belief a watched pot does in fact boil.
    Imagine reading that and you won't need any grainy 'proof' of my internal cerebral-signalling process to understand how I felt when I read the above article.

  • Comment number 55.

    you kidding me? u would think humans have evolved into intelligent being's, even a monkey could tell you he thinks thought's. jeez

  • Comment number 56.

    A little off track and I dont want to offend anyone but I struggle to comprehend how people today still believe in 'the soul'. Its an idealistic concept that doesnt actually exist.I mean believe it if you want ...

    Of course monkeys wonder our genetic lines are so close not that that matters. Excellent experiement though well worth the time.

  • Comment number 57.

    I wonder, therefore I am a monkey.

  • Comment number 58.

    Matt, in 1990 I found myself working with sheep in Sweden. Within minutes of first interacting with them, it became perfectly clear to me all my preconceptions of them as mindless herds of meat drones was utterly wrong - in fact the little bleeders were remarkably cunning in the way I'd been told goats were.

    Yes, as I'd been warned, they did the shy, mass running off thing - but what I hadn't been told was this could be a trick to distract me while three of their number snuck 'round my back and started ripping open the feed bag; then, while I was turning to chase them off, the rest of the herd magically reappeared back behind me, carrying on where the other three'd left off.

    In fact, this outmanoeuvring of me carried on until I finally came up with the stroke of balancing the feed bag on my head until I could reach the feeding trough, herded all the way there by a supposedly mindless bunch of timid sheep ; yet when I told my German colleagues this tale, about creatures they'd been working with for years, they remarked, "We are thinking you have been partaking of the grass, too, no, yes?"

    Day after day, though, these sheep continued to behave in my presence as individuals with their own little personalities, only reverting to 'robotic' herd mentality and running off whenever one of the Germans dropped by to see how "the crazy Englishman from Liverpool is getting on with his crazy sheep", causing me to gently rebuke my sheep 'colleagues' for making me look, of course, deluded if not a fantasist.

    It's only in recent years, though, my non-vegetarian experience with critters like sheep seeming to exhibit something distinctly resembling sentience is starting to be reflected by current researchers suggesting not only're sheep far more aware and intelligent than ever we presumed but even houseflies seem to demonstrate some sort of awareness and intent when they effortlessly dodge our attempts to swat them.

    A warning, though - most human beings like to imagine because of the species they belong to this somehow confers on them honorary Einstein or Leonardo status, so reading open minded accounts interpretable as suggesting 'dumb' animals might be smarter than them, (if only because basking in their honorary Einstein-Leonardoness's rendered them too lazy to use their brains or investigate the nature of consciousness through, say, meditation), will invite often hostile responses.

    Otherwise, bravo! I actually make a point of looking out for your blogs.

  • Comment number 59.


    Seriously, what has that comment got to do with anything? The concept of the soul is irrelevent to the experiement, suffering and animals having thoughts and feelings here and now do.

    As an aside, to contemplate ones conscious existing in some form forever, and to imagine what that form is and how it would exist, is far from idealistic, and to belittle it for no other reason then to spread your views (especially when it is not even necessary to the discussion) is a bit petty.

  • Comment number 60.

    @53 . . . that's spooky. Personally, I dislike monkeys, they give me the creeps; Orang Utans though, they're cool (and, yes, I know they are apes).

  • Comment number 61.

    Sure, ants think even harder - or at least they show a more well-organised social behaviour than monkeys. Let alone super-clever bacteria: what a calculating little beast. My worry however is that, juding by some comments, humans could be as intelligent as monkeys. Anyway, next time I see my fishmonger I will ask if the cod actually gave consent to being put on ice..

  • Comment number 62.

    @ 16. Owen Iles
    ''can i also just point out that because the church states something it doesnt mean every chrisitan believes that.
    You will actually find that its christians who give themselves bad names.''

    So all Christians don't beleive God exists? Surely that excludes them from being Christian? Do you think Monkeys also ponder this? Do you think Monkeys beleive in God?

  • Comment number 63.

    In response to the questions about whether animals have souls and how you define a soul, the answers are:
    The 'soul' (which can also be referred to as consciousness, life force, spirit or various other terms - I shall use soul since that is the terminology used here) is not a clearly defined concept, and yet most of us know what we mean. It is our capacity to experience thoughts and feelings and emotions and a unique sense idenitity, separate from others. It appears to be the part of us that makes decisions. It is the thing that controls our bodies, that raises an arm or speaks a word, and has ideas.
    Scientifically, it is perhaps best defined as the bit we can't define otherwise in physical terms. In other words, look at the concept of whether a description fully describes a phenomena. Theoretically, imagine I describe something in purely chemical and physical terms, as a construction built with a carbon atom in this location and a hydrogen atom in this location, etc. I could list the location of every single atom and molecule, and the state of every chemical bond, and the exact value of every possible physical variable (theoretically - obviously this would not be feasible in practice, and there would be issues listing exatct locations and velocities).
    This complete physical description could tell you everything about a ball bearing or a pebble or a pocket of helium gas, but it would not be sufficient to describe a human. If you (theoretically) followed the blueprint and put all the atoms together in the right places with the right bonds, what you make would be a pebble. It would do everything that any other pebble would do. However, if you followed the blueprint for a human, atom by atom, it would not be sufficient. You would have omitted the phenomenum of 'being capable of experiencing, because there is no molecular blueprint for that.
    The 'deficit' description is not ideal, but I like it.
    One interesting aspect of the phenomena of consciousness is that we only experience our own. I can see my own sight and feel my love and experience my pain, but I can never directly experience yours, and vice versa.
    I assume that you do these things in pretty much the same way that I do because we were built the same way. If two cars come from the BMW factory and are made in exactly the same way, then if I realise mine has a steering wheel I would assume that the other one does as well, without even needing to see it. Likewise I assume that all of you have a sense of consciousness that is pretty similar to mine - it would be counterintuitive to assume otherwise.
    This leads us to an interesting question. If I have a soul and you have a soul, I guess my mum has a soul and her mum had a soul, and her grandmother too. We were all made in essentially the same way. If you trace back through the generations far enough, you'll get to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.
    So, either you have to assume that chimpanzees have souls or that at some stage in our evolutionary history, a mother without a soul gave birth to a daughter with a soul. One of those must be true. Personally, I don't see anything about a chimpanzee that would make me think it did not have a soul. In fact, I am inclined to think that all animals with brains have souls - by which I mean the capacity to experience - and our differences are mainly cosmetic.
    That's not as satisfying as you might think. If you take evolution back further, you reach a stage where we were bugs, and then single celled amoeba, and then amino acid chains, and then just molecules. Those molecules were made in stars, and before that were just gas balls. If you go back far enough,  we were just gases blasted out of the big bang.
    So either you assume that there is a life force that precedes humanity by 13 billion years, or you assume that at some point something without consciousness gave birth to offspring that had consciousness - an extremely interesting step, far more significant that evolving an eye or a lung. And that leads you on the concept of intermediate stages, or degrees of consciousness, or even whether it is as discrete and separate as it feels to us. But science hasn't really looked explored consciousness in so much detail, yet.

  • Comment number 64.

    All creatures are conscious entities like ourselves. The only difference is brain size. A bigger brain can think about more things. Thus it is safe to say that all creatures think.

    For the record, 'spirit' is what a physicist would call 'the observer' - and every creature is one. 'Soul' is one's memory - including memories (whether valid or not) of past incarnations. It is probably for this reason that many argue that animals don't have a soul.

  • Comment number 65.

    should have read 'so *some* christians don't beleive god exists?'

  • Comment number 66.

    They're probably wondering why we're bothered about whether they wonder!

  • Comment number 67.

    For goodness sake why waste time on wondering whether monkeys can wonder, there are more important issues to be wondering about like kids dying through lack of food, old people being battered in nursing homes!!!! get real people! the money it has taken to do this study would be better spent on finding a cure for cancer.

  • Comment number 68.

    We have two cats one of them thinks it rules the house ( the boy ), the other one knows it rules the house ( the girl ).

  • Comment number 69.

    “It is possible that they are thinking about what occurred recently and what to do next, such as going out to have a dinner, or going to the next mating partner.”

    Which suggests that they think just like me.

  • Comment number 70.

    @Skep_tic123 That completely depends on whether you believe in the existence of soul and what that means to you. If a soul is self reflection and a personality, then yes. If a soul is a non-changing essential core of who you are, unchanged by experience, mortality and calamity then perhaps not? I personally do not believe we have a soul in this sense and that we are chemicals, matter, genes and experiences in a constant state of flux. This, for me, does not diminish the exciting and wonderful nature of life, in fact it adds to it. So it all depends on what you define as a soul, does it exist, and does this article assure you that monkeys have souls or do not have souls? Would be interested to know what people think :)

  • Comment number 71.

    "13. At 11:27 21st Jun 2011, Duges wrote:
    Sarcasm receptor malfunctioning United Dreamer?"


  • Comment number 72.

    "13. At 11:27 21st Jun 2011, Duges wrote:
    Sarcasm receptor malfunctioning United Dreamer?"

    I had it on global warming denier setting. Its fixed now.

  • Comment number 73.

    Get a life people! Course we have a soul... I get angry and I get happy. So the soul MUST exist!

    ^----- For all of you who don't get it and need it spelling out, this is a TROLL POST!

  • Comment number 74.

    The cognitive capabilities of non-human primates are well-documented—nothing said here really seems that profound. Of course they have memory and of course they plan ahead. Are we a mere product of our own biology or is there a deep spiritual element that cannot be detected; if there is, can animals have this element? Maybe.
    In the words of Emerson N. Pugh: "If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't".

  • Comment number 75.

    "67.At 15:13 21st Jun 2011, ode wrote:
    For goodness sake why waste time on wondering whether monkeys can wonder, there are more important issues to be wondering about like kids dying through lack of food, old people being battered in nursing homes!!!! get real people! the money it has taken to do this study would be better spent on finding a cure for cancer."

    Ode, scientific research doesn't just progress via making specific targets such as "finding a cure for cancer". Maybe this research could one day help us to understand Brain disorders, perhaps including cancer, in humans? Or have some other unforseen implications?

    When trigonometry was discovered noone would have anticipated its use in analysing wave motion, and hence in things such as medical radiotherapy. It is short sighted to dismiss research just because our imaginations are too limited to understand its potential consequences.

  • Comment number 76.

    Some people’s assumptions that all animals have this “internal thought” may well be correct; but you cannot use a lack of evidence contradicting this claim as evidence to support the claim. The fundamental difference between science and faith is that science is based on evidence and faith isn’t necessarily. That is why this research is very important to the scientific community.

    I too have a pet, whose emotions and feelings I can recognize and relate to. But the problem with these recognitions is that they are man made. It is in human nature to recognize faces and emotions. So me thinking my dog looks sad or hungry is not evidence that he is thinking to himself about something. He instinctively knows when he is hungry, as do you and I. If he is laying down starring at the wall, then suddenly gets up and goes to his bowl, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been thinking about food. He may well have just got hungry. His instincts tell him that he should go and stand by his bowl and instincts are very different to conscious thought.

    Any evidence, which suggests that monkeys really do have conscious thoughts, has profound implications on how we view ourselves. The fact that some people may well argue that they have always believed it is true, is irrelevant. Scientific research helps paint a picture that we can all believe, beyond reasonable doubt.

    There is of course a cruel irony with regards to this research however. In confirming a monkey’s conscious thoughts, we may well be confirming that a monkey’s despair due to the experimentation and captivity.

  • Comment number 77.

    Wondering is one thing as a concept, but surely before that, the concept of 'I' comes into play. So do monkeys have a concept of themselves?
    For instance do they wonder simply about how next to handle a rival monkey group attack, or go a bit further and wonder "what should I do?"

  • Comment number 78.

    It was Descartes, in many ways the father of modern science, who came up with the idea of the separation of mind and matter, and who regarded animals as kinds of fleshy machines.

  • Comment number 79.

    certainly horses are able to distinguish right from wrong ,they are able to worry & show concern over potential danger to their offspring.Some show much higher levels of intelligence & considered thought than others but in general they have become either more intelligent over the last few decades or people have become more aware of how they communicate,all animals "talk" with a mixture of sounds & body language we just need to learn how to listen

  • Comment number 80.

    I wonder how much of these thought activities are learned from interaction with humans. Beyond simple scavenging instincts where they change behaviour to access food I was thinking that much of this behaviour might actually be learned by them observing humans. There may be a clear differential between the intelligence of wild animals and those of similar species that regularly interact with humans.

  • Comment number 81.

    Complex speach and communication using it, makes us human and chimps just communicate in their own way. We had the advantage in evolution thats all, one day maybe chimps might evolve a speachbox like ours, but I believe they do have their own thoughts as chimps, you can see it in their eyes!

  • Comment number 82.

    animal wonder about things relevant to them, like how they will catch their prey or what mate they will have not completely random stuff like humans do

  • Comment number 83.

    Matt,you only have to look at this clip of an orangutan rescuing a baby bird, from the BBC website, to see a primate full of wonder.

  • Comment number 84.

    It seems to me that if we need to undertake these sorts of experiments on monkeys in an attempt to try to understand what it is to be human, then we have lost all hope of understanding what it is to be human. By undertaking these experiments in the first place, we are defining humanity as something which is seperated from the animal world - a dualistic Cartesian perspective. We should see ourselves as part of the world in which we live, not as some superior detached God-like figure. All these experiments show is that the only 'humans' in this world are those of the non-human type!

  • Comment number 85.

    'When we visit a zoo and look into a monkey’s eyes, wondering what it is thinking, it might even be looking at us right back, wondering exactly the same.'

    There's no need to wonder. I'm sure if you had asked, Dr. Watanabe would have told you that for many species of old world monkey, direct eye contact is a sign of aggression.

  • Comment number 86.

    What a thought-provoking piece! Izilwane, an online conservation magazine, reviewed a book about bonobos by Vanessa Woods entitled "Bonobo Handshake." It would be interesting to read that book with this BBC article in mind...

  • Comment number 87.

    Isn't it obvious that monkeys wonder? But isn't it also obvious that because of thousands of years of learnt culture we are forbidden from making the shift in rational necessary to accept these creatures as having potential to help us understand our own species or having rights in any sense as co-inhabitants of our world. Human beings are still far too savage selfish and subjective.

  • Comment number 88.

    obviously they are intelligent, however, all animals lack something which baffels me. not all humans are creative enough to think of something new, however, all humans can at least copy. Animals can not copy, otherwise monkeys would just copy us and...make things, like houses and so on, or even understand language.

    these things that they lack are what makes the human race superior to them all. they see we use tooks and they don't, they see we wear clothes build houses drive cars, they dont even try to understand us, yet we are facinated with them. bizzare

  • Comment number 89.

    I have seen quite a few comments that are profoundly annoying and worse, ignorant, so I'm very sorry but here it goes

    To the "lets-protect-the-animals-from-bad-bad-scientists" crew. Most animal research is made without harming the animals. Which is the case here, since all they did was to scan brain activity. If you're against animal research please don't buy any medicine, soap, shampoo, deodorants, etc since its in that kind of research that animals are actually harmed.

    To the "what-are-this-dumb-scientists-doing" crew. No, not everything with nervous system thinks, let alone wonders. A fly, a worm, etc have a nervous system and yet don't think. The main function of the nervous system is not thinking, its controlling movement and physical perception of the environment (vision, audition, touch). So to try to understand what is necessary to have a brain thinking, imagining, wondering are not only valid scientific questions, they might actually contribute to understand cognitive deficiencies in, you guessed, humans.

  • Comment number 90.

    88 Animals do copy - that's how they learn to survive. By watching and copying their parents and others in the group. Also look at studies of group animals learning new tasks from each other. There are also studies or Orangutan's copying humans in simple tasks.

  • Comment number 91.

    #84 So just don't bother investigating these things. Just accept your view!

    Its natural for people to be curious about their environment and their relationship with themselves. Even animals share that curiousity. We are just supremely more advanced at doing this. Surely by not investigating we are separating ourselves from animals.

    By the way, I do happen to think humans are different from animals but the nature of the difference (or lack thereof) cannot just be retrieved out our imagination.

  • Comment number 92.

    88 interesting take Charles_Law but maybe they just see those activities as not being of use to them. They can live by themselves without houses, cars and other paraphanalia. However, there is a question of how much of our activity is just our arms race to find a mate. If they saw through us a way of beating the dominant male in the group - that might have some use! Although it would have to be a repeated observation.

    I believe there is evidence animals copy though but even we as humans only copy if we think doing so helps us achieve peer approval and, as I say, find a mate.

    One thing that is at times is forgotten is that though there are many similarities between humans and animals, the sea change encompassing our huge advances and our huge advantage are actually only achieved by inspirational and often unorthodox leaps by a few individuals. The rest of us are just reaping the rewards for their invention.

    If we could tap into a common theme that underpins these inspirational leaps then maybe we have found the real differential between man and animals.

  • Comment number 93.

    Thanks to all those who pointed out the obvious: that's it's obscene to keep these primates in horrid conditions of captivity just so we can learn how much they are like us and how they're probably suffering even more as a result. These are not "helpless" animals; each species is an essential part of a real ecosystem, and that is where they should live. Our astonishing lack of respect for these biospheres, and the animals within them, is why our planet is in such a mess in the first place. Shame on the people who keep primates this way.

    Animal "intelligence" is silly. To say that one animal is intelligent, is to imply that other animals are stupid. Each animal, be it a squid, a spider, lobster, etc is adapted perfectly well for their respective environments. Primates do not belong in a lab, any more than a human child. I do not "feel sorry" for these animals; I simply respect them for their ecosystem role, and I am sickened by our narcissism which makes us insist on searching for human qualities everywhere we turn.

    Let's get over ourselves, people, and study animals for their differences -- and in their own ecosystems, not ours.

  • Comment number 94.

    Excellent article elucidating current attempts to understand human mental faculties by analysing primate behaviour. The importance of highlighting such research is of course due to primate species being our closest relatives. Research into higher primates (monkeys, apes and ourselves) is of greater importance due to the closer relationship of us to any species within this group and because there is clearly a grade step in similarity of behaviour.

    It would be nice though if such discussions emphasised cladistic relationships. Very simply: the tracing of a trait to a common ancester - based on descendent species sharing common characteristics. Otherwise, the importance of behaviours can become confusing. Such an approach must become mainstream in the general public. The following blog illustrates how in the context of the monkey, ape and human family tree this can simplify matters:
    See 21 May 2011 post of https://www.zoologicalhistory.blogspot.com/

  • Comment number 95.

    yes the one in the photograph is wondering why he and his family did not climb down from the tree and walk upright?he would not need hot springs to keep warm if they had,they would have had gas central heating.

  • Comment number 96.

    A very interesting study - it would gain momentum if more research was done on animals with less complex brains, such as rats and fish, to see if they also have a default mode of brain activity.


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