Chimps, Orangutans Have Human-Like Memory

Forgot your Facebook password? Can’t remember if it’s one cup of sugar or two? Misplaced your keys—again? 

Why we remember and forget is a big topic of study, and scientists at the Aarhus University Center on Autobiographical Memory Research in Denmark have turned to the animal kingdom for answers.

Now, a new study published today in Current Biology shows that captive chimpanzees and orangutans can quickly recall past events like people. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives.

A chimpanzee named Frodo seems to pose in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

“I think [the study] tells us that our memory systems are not unique,” said study co-author Gema Martin-Ordas, a postdoctoral researcher.  (Read more about memory in National Geographic magazine.)

“We’re showing that there are some features we share with other animals.”

“Shocking” Primate Memory 

Martin-Ordas and her team used specific cues to trigger memories of an experiment that the chimps and orangutans had learned three years prior.

During that previous experiment, researchers hid tools in strategically placed boxes and asked the primates to find them. When the scientists recreated the test, the primates had no trouble quickly remembering where the tools had been concealed.

This suggests that primates can quickly recollect past events, a feat that scientists previously thought only humans could do.

“I was shocked that the chimpanzees and orangutans found the tools,” Martin-Ordas said. “I was skeptical. I thought it wouldn’t work, and it did.”

“This is really impressive,” she added.

Memories Not Created Equal

If you have trouble remembering what you had for breakfast yesterday—let alone three years ago—don’t worry: Not all memories are created equal.

People remember general and specific events. General events are those that happen over and over, similar to our collective memory of attending school. Specific events are those that happen once, like our first day of school.

There are lots of triggers for memories. Martin-Ordas and colleagues used visual cues with the primates, using the same lab layout and technology to activate the animals’ remembrance of the experiment.

Other triggers like sound and smell can also prompt powerful memories.

“Every time I smell this perfume, it brings back memories of me going to school when I was five or six,” Martin-Ordas said. “It’s really intense.” (Test your memory with a National Geographic game.) 

Memory recall is important for humans because it allows us to plan for future events, she added. When we’re thinking about what we’re going to pack for our next trip, for example, we usually have in mind what happened during the last one.

Memories also allow people to build their sense of self across time in a coherent way, which plays a big role in our personal wellbeing.

“We usually share memories with others,” Martin-Ordas said. “That’s important to establish relationships.”

Memory Research Still Ongoing

Next, researchers will look at whether chimpanzees and orangutans are aware that they’re recalling a personal memory.

Autobiographical memories are like movies that you store in your brain: When something triggers a memory, the movie replays in your head. You know that it’s your memory, but do animals have the same realization?

Chimps and orangutans “share some features of autobiographical memories that humans have, but we can’t be sure whether they’re aware of those memories, and that’s the debate,” Martin-Ordas said.

The science of memory storage and remembrance is still a field in its infancy: The brain is such a complex organ that it’s difficult to pinpoint exact memory-storage processes. (See a 3-D memory interactive.)

But further study of memory in the animal kingdom could provide valuable information that could someday prevent memory problems in people.

Tell us: What do you usually forget?

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.
  • Gabriel Frommer

    I am not impressed. Put a pigeon back in a test chamber three years after training on some a rather elaborate task, and it will do the task (almost) immediately. A better test of human-like memory would be to train the chimpanzee (or other species) in a rather richly complex environment and return the animal to that environment, the basic layout of which remains largely unchanged must many of the specific features deleted, modified, or replaced.

  • Paula Rice

    I usually forget why I went to the kitchen. To save face, I heat a cuppa coffee or grab a cold pop. I get back to the computer area and remember that I originally went to the kitchen to get some paper towels. Or some cookies, or or or lolol

  • Justin Green

    So, you’re saying that apes have human like memory because humans have bad memories? Why not emphasize the good memory of chimps instead of bad memory of humans as in your tag line? Is this demeaning to our species, theirs or both, I guess it doesn’t matter since humans are apes anyway.

  • Charles Darwin


    I just rolled over ….

    Why is this surprising? Where do these “surprised scientists” think we humans got our ability to remember past events?

    I have written a couple of books on the subject that these scientists, or, more likely this journalist, might want to read….


  • Bipul Saha

    quite interesting study. to study functions human brain, we have to work a lot with our closest primates. we also have to study how nervous system with brain evolved over geological time.

  • Azmach Begashaw

    don’t undermine the work of GOD

  • grace javier

    i usually forget simple things like where i have placed the pair of scissors or a coin i was holding just a while ago and placed it somewhere.. perhaps i think it’s because my brain is preoccupied because i have a baby and all my attention is on him because now he is just over a year old and it is during this time that he has to be watched 24/7 because he already tries to do lots of stuff like walking, climb up the stairs, and even puts everything that he can grab in his mouth!

  • Memory Man

    The human brain is amazing when it comes to encoding information visually. That’s the trick that all memory experts use. I wonder if these chimps do the same? More research should be done here.


  • Tyler Esmon

    This is an interesting article but it’s a shame there isn’t more information on the tests run on the chimps. I feel it would be important to tie emotional events or actions with the tests to see if that would alter or improve their memory. I am curious if chimps suppress things that traumatize them like humans do. I feel like that would be a great thing to test.

  • Kay

    I would have liked to read more information about any of the numerous topics in this article.- Sleep and memory and development, etc. Aren’t the same cells in the brain that store memory existent in all our organs? Is memory thought to only be located in the brain? …

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