Recursive sequence generation in monkeys, children, U.S. adults, and native Amazonians

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Science Advances  26 Jun 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 26, eaaz1002
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz1002


The question of what computational capacities, if any, differ between humans and nonhuman animals has been at the core of foundational debates in cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and animal behavior. The capacity to form nested hierarchical representations is hypothesized to be essential to uniquely human thought, but its origins in evolution, development, and culture are controversial. We used a nonlinguistic sequence generation task to test whether subjects generalize sequential groupings of items to a center-embedded, recursive structure. Children (3 to 5 years old), U.S. adults, and adults from a Bolivian indigenous group spontaneously induced recursive structures from ambiguous training data. In contrast, monkeys did so only with additional exposure. We quantify these patterns using a Bayesian mixture model over logically possible strategies. Our results show that recursive hierarchical strategies are robust in human thought, both early in development and across cultures, but the capacity itself is not unique to humans.

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