Television for non human primates

For this week’s response, I will like to discuss the implications and possible future development I identified from the research on non human primate cognition conducted by Rachel Mayeri in collaboration with Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick and Dr. Deborah Forster in Primate Cinema.

Primate Cinema is a compilation of individual projects that explores cognition and communication of non human primates. Its main topics of study are non verbal communication, response to image stills and motion pictures, and primate attention and saliency. The individual pieces of this project are: Baboons as Friends, Apes as Family, Movies for Monkeys, and How to act like an animal. For my response I will focus on Apes as Family and Movies for Monkeys because I would like to emphasize my discussion on television as a tool for research. Both of these projects employ the projection of images, both stills and movies, to elicit primate responses that are observed and analyzed as data.

Apes as Family is composed by a film and a bifocal movie instalation. As Rachel Mayeri explains in her website:

“The film is an original movie I  made expressly for chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo. A primate drama, like many made for human audiences, the film follows a young female as she befriends a wild group of foreigners.”


Response to a dramatic scene in the movie

The installation consists of a dual projection of both the film and a recording of the chimpanzees’ reactions to it. This allows the audience to visualize the different responses the primates have to particular scenes. The main objective of this was to learn chimp preferences for film; to learn what catches their attention when projected on TV. There was a couple of interesting discoveries. Chimps showed reactions to sexual scenes, display behaviors, noises like kettle drums and even Teletubbies. It was also found that chimps attention to the television was limited to minutes. They showed more interest in their social surrounding and the changing dynamic triggered by the movie. In conclusion, researchers were unable to clearly identify particular components of the film with which the primates were most engaged because different screenings yielded different results and reactions between different chimps were substantially different. This could be easily attributed to their different cultural backgrounds – from lab primates to chimpanzees that grew as pets – and their past experiences.

Similarly, Movies for Monkeys consisted of the observation and recording of squirrel monkeys’ reactions to video in an effort to understand what their preferences in cinema would be. Here’s a short clip showing one of the experiments.

The video shows different objects and circumstances on the screen next the monkey enclosure. I believe that an interesting idea from this experiment was trying to observe the reactions of the monkeys to animated objects in comparison to their realistic counterparts. An expansion of their social was also an object of research.

Both these projects show how television could augment social interactions in non human primates by allowing them to displace themselves from their enclosures. It also shows that primates can sympathize and respond to cinema. This could lead us to the development of motion pictures tailored specifically to non human primates that could enable us to communicate effectively. However, much needs to be done. Like Rachel Mayeri mentioned, breaching cultural barriers between arts and science is a crucial part of the development of this type of research.

My interest in these projects sparked from a tangential idea for research on educational television for non human primates. Analogous to Sesame Street, researchers could develop techniques to attract primates’ attention to educational television programs that could build interspecies communication skills (for instance, sign language). An educational tv program like the one proposed would have to tackle the differences in cognition between non human primates and humans. Researchers would have to asses the best way to lead to knowledge acquisition by the primates. The attention spans of apes and monkeys differ greatly from that of children. Research behind Sesame Street showed that children’s attention diverted when no muppets where shown on screen. Producers decided to blend fictional characters with human ones against professional advice (scientists were worried that a mixed setting with fictional and real characters could confuse kids) in an effort to keep the children’s attention. The results were positive. Similarly, research would have to pursue the development of attention catching scenes tailored for non human primates.

A fun approach to behavioral research, like that of Rachel Mayeri, thus could lead to the facilitation of interspecies communication. Years from now, research chimps will watch their favorite show, Sesame Tree on the Non-human primate channel on Netflix, and the skills learned from this show could enable them to communicate with us.

Sesame Tree

Rodolfo Salido


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