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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Macaques are watching (and learning)

Science and techno world topic: Psychology

The monkeys are able to learn by observing a human model: a discovery that opens new perspectives in the study of mechanisms of learning.

Photo: A female rhesus macaque with her young in the Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Photography by- David Pattyn / Nature Photo / Corbis

So far it seemed that the monkeys could learn just by observing the behavior of other monkeys but the new study published in the journal PLoS One by Aldo Genovesio, researcher in neurophysiology at the Sapienza University of Rome, demonstrates for the first time in primates that learning can take place even from the observation of a human model. 

Previous studies had shown that monkeys learn by observing other monkeys, but was not yet clear whether this could happen even with the observation of a human model. 

In the first part of the experiment, conducted by a team of researchers in Italy, a person - observed at close range by two macaques - had to solve a simple problem of learning. It consisted of doing the choice of an object "correct" under which a reward was hidden, usually fruit. Later the same problem was directly subjected to the two primates. In 70 percent of those cases, the primates were able to make the correct choice and got the reward. 

In their experiment, Italian researchers have decided to add a slight variant known - and so far only used in the studies on human psychology - as a "vicarious reinforcement" (vicarious reinforcement conditioning is an action that affects the person who performs the action, in this case, the monkey, but the model to be imitated, are humans). This was not included in previous studies. Many researches conducted on human behavior have shown, for example, that children learn by imitation when they see a reference model, an adult or another child who receives an award - that is, vicarious reinforcement - if he has reached the correct action. The use of the reinforcement vicarious, until now, had only been used in studies monkey - monkey, while for the first time, researchers have applied in a model monkey - man. In practice, in the experiment conducted by Genovesio-model every time the person who solved the problem and earned the reward, had to eat it! 

According Genovesio "This study not only demonstrate for the first time that monkeys can learn by observing the man, not only their conspecifics, also has important implications for understanding the neural basis of learning, such as mirror neurons." 

Mirror neurons, which are a specific type of neurons originally discovered in monkeys and later humans, are activated when performing a certain action is when you observe it, and the students are the basis of the mechanisms of understanding and learning. Moreover, their response also varies according to the subjective value that is given by the observer to the action that is observed. In some studies in macaques, for example, researchers have discovered that their mirror neurons provide a much stronger response when the animal observes an action that involves an object that has some value, such as a result of their liking, but if the observation in monkeys of mirror neurons is simple, in humans is more complicated and can only be done under indirect observation techniques such as MRI. 

Thus, according to the authors of the new study, now that it has been demonstrated that monkeys interacting with humans just as they do with their conspecifics, their new model "ape-man and vicarious reinforcement" can be used in future applied research understanding of the role of mirror neurons and the complex neural mechanisms that regulate learning by imitation.

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