On October 26th, 2015 we learned about

40-second cinema tests chimps’ sense of suspense

So, scientists have been making movies for chimpanzees. Movies with tension, danger and release, meant to thrill and excite their simian audience, at least enough to allow researchers to track the chimps’ attention and focus. The goal was not so much to learn whether or not chimpanzees prefer horror or comedies, but rather to see how well they can learn and predict events.

The movies followed a lot of best practices for film-making. One scene starts with a relatable cast, consisting of a human and a human playing a chimp in a crude costume. Filmed from inside the chimpanzee’s cage, we see the human hitting the cage from the outside. Possibly fed up with the noise, the chimp goes out the door and begins hitting the human before calmly sitting to the side. The devious human plots their revenge, reaching for one of two weapons in the foreground of the shot (and oddly, in the chimp’s cage.) He finally grabs a brightly-colored hammer, and then vengefully attacks the chimp, who is forced to retreat to his cage.

Worth watching twice

The chimpanzee audience found this frightening tale revenge to be riveting enough to watch it more than once, even refusing treats that might potentially interfere with the screening. Eye-tracking technology watched where on the screen they were focusing their attention. On the first viewing, the chimps followed visual cues as you’d expect, with movement and contrast drawing their attention. When shown the same movie a second time 24 hours later, their gaze became more anticipatory— rather than strictly focus on what was happening at that moment, the chimps were looking to where key actions in the plot were going to happen. For example, when the devious human was reaching for a weapon, the chimps appreciated the moment of tension, looking at the hammer they expected him to pickup (even when an alternate version of the video was shown with the weapon placement reversed, showing they were looking for the narrative, not the space on the screen.)

Taking it all in

While the chimpanzees could effectively enjoy the moments of suspense in the movies, they weren’t necessarily scared or agitated by them. This is fine, since the researchers weren’t looking to scare them as much as discover how much chimps learn from single ‘episodes’ of experience. The fact that they can retain these kinds of details, and then expect them again in a similar context is relevant to our understanding of their cognitive abilities, and to practical issues of working with chimps. Researchers may need to weight how quickly these primates can learn and rely on details from unusual scenarios. Like from a cognitive experiment, for instance.

Source: Apes remember major events in movies, even on a single viewing by Andy Coghlan, New Scientist

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