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Are you smarter than a chimpanzee?

Nadine Charanek, a member of the Linguistic Neurodiversity Lab (PI Dr. Olessia Jouravlev) and in collaboration with Dr. Panos Athansopoulos (Lancaster University, UK) presented her research at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society (aka the Psychonomics). The Psychonomics is the largest cognitive psychology conference, attended by more than 3,000 researchers each year.

Nadine gave a talk titled “Visuospatial working memory of serial order in bilinguals, monolinguals, and chimpanzees: The possible influence of language on recall”.

Chimpanzees have been shown to outperform humans in visuospatial serial order recall (Inuoe and Matsuzawa, 2007, 2009). According to the cognitive tradeoff hypothesis (Inuoe and Matsuzawa, 2007, 2009), chimps are superior to humans in this task because humans sacrificed a robust working memory system to accommodate the complex system of language. Based on the cognitive tradeoff hypothesis, we hypothesized that acquiring multiple languages might be associated with additional costs in the visuospatial working memory that bilinguals incur.

To test this hypothesis, we compared the performance of monolinguals vs. bilinguals (and vs. data from chimpanzees reported in Inuoe and Matsuzawa, 2007, 2009) as they engaged in a limited-hold masking task. In this task, visual stimuli (numerals or nonverbal pictures) are briefly displayed on the screen before being masked by white boxes. Participants memorized the location of the stimuli in the order of their appearance.

Consistent with prior research, we found that chimpanzees outperformed humans. Further, there were indications that bilinguals with a particular language background history (balanced; need to use 2 languages on daily basis) differed from monolinguals in their performance in the visuospatial serial order recall. Specifically, we found that bilinguals performed worse than monolinguals in the visuospatial working memory task if they used a verbal strategy. In contrast, those bilinguals who used a non-verbal strategy in completing this task outperformed monolinguals.


Bialystok, E. (1999). Cognitive complexity and attentional control in the bilingual mind. Child Development, 70(3), 636-644​

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240-250​

Bialystok, E., Majumder, S., & Martin, M. M. (2003). Developing phonological awareness: Is there a bilingual advantage? Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(1), 27-44​

Inoue, S., & Matsuzawa, T. (2007). Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees. Current Biology, 17(23), R1004-R1005. ​

Inoue, S., & Matsuzawa, T. (2009). Acquisition and memory of sequence order in young and adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Animal cognition, 12(1), 59-69. ​

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