Visual artificial grammar learning by rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta): exploring the role of grammar complexity and sequence length

Lisa A. Heimbauer, Christopher M. Conway, Morten H. Christiansen, Michael J. Beran, Michael J. Owren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Humans and nonhuman primates can learn about the organization of stimuli in the environment using implicit sequential pattern learning capabilities. However, most previous artificial grammar learning studies with nonhuman primates have involved relatively simple grammars and short input sequences. The goal in the current experiments was to assess the learning capabilities of monkeys on an artificial grammar-learning task that was more complex than most others previously used with nonhumans. Three experiments were conducted using a joystick-based, symmetrical-response serial reaction time task in which two monkeys were exposed to grammar-generated sequences at sequence lengths of four in Experiment 1, six in Experiment 2, and eight in Experiment 3. Over time, the monkeys came to respond faster to the sequences generated from the artificial grammar compared to random versions. In a subsequent generalization phase, subjects generalized their knowledge to novel sequences, responding significantly faster to novel instances of sequences produced using the familiar grammar compared to those constructed using an unfamiliar grammar. These results reveal that rhesus monkeys can learn and generalize the statistical structure inherent in an artificial grammar that is as complex as some used with humans, for sequences up to eight items long. These findings are discussed in relation to whether or not rhesus macaques and other primate species possess implicit sequence learning abilities that are similar to those that humans draw upon to learn natural language grammar.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)267-284
Number of pages18
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Artificial grammar learning
  • Rhesus macaques
  • Sequence learning
  • Statistical learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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