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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Apr 24;98(9):5359-62. Epub 2001 Mar 27.

Rhesus monkeys know when they remember.

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Section on the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Laboratory of Neuropsychology, National Institute of Mental Health, Building 49, Room 1B-80, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


Humans are consciously aware of some memories and can make verbal reports about these memories. Other memories cannot be brought to consciousness, even though they influence behavior. This conspicuous difference in access to memories is central in taxonomies of human memory systems but has been difficult to document in animal studies, suggesting that some forms of memory may be unique to humans. Here I show that rhesus macaque monkeys can report the presence or absence of memory. Although it is probably impossible to document subjective, conscious properties of memory in nonverbal animals, this result objectively demonstrates an important functional parallel with human conscious memory. Animals able to discern the presence and absence of memory should improve accuracy if allowed to decline memory tests when they have forgotten, and should decline tests most frequently when memory is attenuated experimentally. One of two monkeys examined unequivocally met these criteria under all test conditions, whereas the second monkey met them in all but one case. Probe tests were used to rule out "cueing" by a wide variety of environmental and behavioral stimuli, leaving detection of the absence of memory per se as the most likely mechanism underlying the monkeys' abilities to selectively decline memory tests when they had forgotten.

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