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How humans become tool users

Thursday, October 8, 2015 - 10:57am

Dorothy Fragaszy's sustained investigations have made her one of the world's foremost experts on tool use by capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees. A new paper from her research group provides a unique glimpse at how humans develop an ability to use tools in childhood while nonhuman primate remain only occasional tool users:

Fragaszy, a psychology professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Primate Behavior Laboratory at UGA, created two studies to look at how nonhuman primates and human children differ in completing simple spatial reasoning tasks.

Much like a game of Operation, human children ages 2, 3 and 4 and adult nonhuman primates were asked to fit a stick, a cross and a tomahawk into a matching cutout space on a tray. Children were also given an opportunity to complete this task by placing the sticks on a mat with a drawing of the matching shape, as well as into a space on a tray.

"We did the study with nonhuman primates specifically to look at the management of objects in space," Fragaszy said. "I wanted to give them a spatial reasoning task that was not a tool-using task. We wanted to look at how they worked with these objects and arranged them in relation to features of another surface and from that gain some insight as to how they use objects as tools.

"In the case of the children, we wanted to see how they completed the same spatial reasoning task, but with a developmental dimension to it that is not present with our study of nonhuman primates because they were all adults."

The relationship between vision and action in young children is fascinating - and the contrast with non-human primates helps illuminate the phenomenon. Haptic perception particulalry represents a rich vein of thought and understanding about developing spatial relationships. Great work.

Image: Dorothy Fragaszy

Teaser image: via wikimedia commons.

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