History of the LRC

This comprehensive history of the LRC was written by former LRC director David Washburn. 

The history of the LRC began with the vision of Duane Rumbaugh, its first director. Duane Rumbaugh (1929-2017) was an internationally renowned comparative psychologist whose studies of the nature of the learning and language processes of primates, in relation to their brain evolution and development, date back to 1958 when he conducted research with the great apes at the San Diego Zoo and with monkeys at San Diego State College. Rumbaugh received his master’s degree from Kent State University in 1951 and his Ph.D. in general-experimental psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1955. He had continuous grant support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development since 1971 to 2016. Other agencies to support his research have been the NSF and NASA.  He served as chair of the Psychology Department from 1971 until his retirement in 2000 as Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Biology at Georgia State University. From 1969 to 1971 he was the Associate Director and Chief of Behavior at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center of Emory University.

In 1971, Rumbaugh initiated the Language ANAlog (LANA) Project. Together with collaborators from a variety of disciplines, Rumbaugh attempting to train a chimpanzee (also named Lana) to use and to comprehend symbols via an innovative computer-based keyboard. Lana Chimpanzee Language Project and led the development of a computer-monitored keyboard for that and other projects which have followed to this day at the LRC. The keyboard was a marvel of modern engineering, circa 1970! Using a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8ECA computer system that was about the size and weight of a small refrigerator, Key-presses resulted in illumination of the depressed key and projection of the corresponding symbol on Digi-key projectors located above the keyboard. Responses were recorded on paper by teletype. Legal “sentences” (e.g., PLEASE MACHINE GIVE JUICE PERIOD) would result in automatic actions (e.g., juice would be dispensed, windows would open, and so forth) or would generate keyboard-based responses from human caregivers. For more information about this technology and project, see Rumbaugh (1977) and Rumbaugh et al. (1973).

From this original LANA project came the development of a lexigram keyboard that enabled a chimpanzee to develop novel sentences and requests. The LANA project aimed not to document the learning ability in Pan troglodytes but instead to advance research and develop a computer-controlled language training system for use with those with whom language learning ability was limited, for example apes or children with mental retardation. As the LANA project progressed, it became clear that such a keyboard was incredibly instrumental for teaching apes to successfully learn and develop language skills. It also proved that Lana herself was adept at learning and using dozens of lexigrams. Similar keyboards are used today by researchers in Japan, Disney World, and elsewhere. Some of the projects have included research and interventions directed by Dr. MaryAnn Romski and Dr. Rose Sevcik with children and young adults whose language development was compromised by mental retardation.

Given the success of these efforts, Georgia State University constructed a facility and moved the ape-language research to its own property. In 1981, the Language Research Center was approved as an interdisciplinary center by the GSU and the Board of Regents, with Duane Rumbaugh as its founding Director. In 2000, Rumbaugh retired and Dr. David Washburn (who joined the Center in 1984) was appointed Director of the LRC. Today, the LRC occupies 5 laboratory and support buildings. Georgia State University and the GSU Research Foundation continues to provide unwavering support for the animals, facilities, and research staff at this unique research center.

In addition to the computer-monitored keyboard, Rumbaugh led the development of automated training and testing equipment for rhesus macaques. That apparatus, called the Language Research Center’s Computerized Test System or Rumbaughx (pronounced “rum-box” to correspond to the common names of other influential apparatus in comparative psychology such as the Skinner box and the problem box), entails use of a joystick by the primates in complex interactive tasks with a computer. It is widely used in behavioral research programs across this nation and around the world. The rhesus monkeys that came to the LRC in 1987 as part of NASA’s “Rhesus Project” demonstrated for the first time that macaques could learn to manipulate a joystick so as to control a computer-generated cursor on the screen in response to a wide variety of computerized tests (e.g., automated versions of the standard testing paradigms in comparative psychology, monkey-friendly versions of tasks that were originally used in studies of human cognition or cognitive development, or variations on popular games that were used for research or enrichment). The monkeys engage the computer tasks voluntarily–the animals are not deprived of food or fluids or reduced in body weight for purposes of testing, and work/rest when they want on the computer-based tasks. Across the years, LRC scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that the Rumbaughx and associated training protocol is not only unsurpassed with respect to the quality and quantity of data it generates, but also that it is an effective form of environmental enrichment that supports the nonhuman primates’ psychological well-being (as is required by ethical, scientific, and legal considerations).

Further questions on the nature of language were raised by LRC researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues working with chimpanzees Sherman and Austin in the late 1970s. Unlike Lana, Sherman and Austin were shown to understand semantics, or word meaning. While Lana’s training emphasized language production, Sherman and Austin learned the lexigrams and corresponding names of three kinds of food and three tools; the emphasis was on their learning how to classify them (Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1980). In controlled tests, Sherman and Austin were presented with 17 new lexigrams and asked to categorize them as food or tools based on their knowledge of the previous six, which they did successfully and with only one error; Sherman called a sponge a food. (But Sherman often sucked on sponges when they were soaked with juice, so technically he might have known what he was talking about.) For Sherman and Austin, comprehension was the key, not a byproduct. They had learned to classify objects by type and reach for them in separate bins, which necessitated their understanding key things about each object. Later these two apes demonstrated symbol-based, cross-modal matching; they could look at a lexigram and then reach into a box to retrieve it without seeing it first. In a subsequent study, Sherman and Austin were shown a room containing a random array of food and drinks and asked to choose one silently, then leave the room. While in the second room, they declared via lexigram the name of the item that they intended to get when they went back to visit the first room. If they chose the declared item upon their reentry into the first room, they were given that food or drink as a reward. Both Sherman and Austin completed this test with 90 percent accuracy, documenting their ability to use lexigrams to declare intent.

A new era in LRC research began in 1982 when Matata, a bonobo brought to the center after six years of life in the wild, was briefly separated from her son Kanzi.  Savage-Rumbaugh’s efforts to teach language to Matata had largely been a failure. After years of training, she could use only a few symbols and showed no sign that they were meaningful to her. But on the day she left, the 2 ½ year-old Kanzi stepped into the spotlight. With Matata gone, Kanzi needed to communicate his needs to the human researchers – and he did, picking up the lexigram keyboard and using it with ease from the very day his mother left their enclosure. Although Kanzi had never been explicitly taught, had picked up language by watching the interactions with Matata and used the symbols communicatively.  The result was a major shift in approach to language with apes at the center. Savage-Rumbaugh and her team of researchers (including Rose Sevcik, Karen Brakke, and many other collaborators) reworked the research protocol to abandon “language training.” Instead, the focus shifted to language learning, by raising Kanzi and other apes in language-rich contexts in which lexigram symbols and spoken English were used naturally to announce intentions, to describe actions, to ask questions, to provide responses, and so forth. Because Kanzi had learned so well by simply listening to and participating in the environment at the lab, the focus of the research was shifted to expose the animals to the rich functions of language, and then to test competencies under controlled settings (such as the headphone-based tests of English comprehension pictured here). Much as parents do with their infant children, people spoke to Kanzi as though he understood what they were saying. New lexigrams were developed to keep pace with Kanzi’s rapidly expanding vocabulary, and electronic versions of the keyboard sounded out the English equivalents as he pressed the keys.

Was Kanzi’s success at language unique to the bonobo, or could it in fact be replicated in a chimpanzee in the same language-rich environment? This question was undertaken by Savage-Rumbaugh, Brakke & Hutchins with the infant apes Panzee (P. troglodytes) and Panbanisha (P. paniscus) beginning shortly after their birth in 1985. By the time they were two years old, it was clear that immersion in a bicultural, language-dominated atmosphere led to a remarkable command of language (lexigram-based comprehension and use, as well as comprehension of spoken English) in both apes, although Panbanisha may have had a greater capacity for language and use of the keyboard than did Panzee. Like Lana, Sherman, Kanzi, and the other apes studied at the LRC, Panzee continues to this day to use her communicative skills, to learn additional lexigrams, and to contribute to a growing understanding of what language is and how cognition is changed by language competencies–as did Panbanisha, until her death in 2013.  Further work by Savage-Rumbaugh and collaborators with Kanzi attempted to contrast his sentence comprehension with a human child, Alia. Alia’s mother worked with her at the keyboard for half of each day, and spent the other half doing the same with Kanzi and other apes. After a fashion, controlled tests were done contrasting Alia’s sentence comprehension with Kanzi’s. Overall, Kanzi got 81 percent of these requests correct in controlled trials while Alia was 64 percent correct. The Kanzi work also directly points out the importance of the first few years of infancy for learning language, be the student human or ape.

Research by Charles Menzel with Panzee emphasized an ape’s ability to comprehend and communicate words, actions and information about the past, present and future. Panzee consistently shows extraordinary skill in memory recall as well as communication and future planning by watching an object being hidden in the woods by an experimenter, then directing someone else with no knowledge of either the identity of the item or its hiding place to find it days later. In one such trial, all 34 items hidden in the woods were found by the searcher, under Panzee’s guidance from memory.

We now know that apes, like human children, don’t respond particularly well to teaching in the traditional sense but instead seem prepared to learn complex thought by simply paying attention. How do we explain this? We propose one way of understanding such complex learning processes: the establishment of a triarchic organization of behavior consisting not only of operant and respondent conditioning but also a third class of behavior called “emergents.” Emergents are new competencies, never reinforced, that go beyond the effects of association. By establishing such a class of behavior we would be better prepared to measure things like extraordinary adaptations to specific events or situations or unique, unanticipated applications of transfer of learning. Kanzi’s learning to read a map of the forest, again without reinforcement, is a good example.

The research program directed by Michael Beran, who joined the LRC in 1995, provides other examples of emergents in the competencies of monkeys and chimpanzees. His studies of numerical cognition, delay of gratification, metacognition, and prospective memory illustrate that nonhuman primates, like humans, remain sensitive to the associative influences of operant and classical conditioning, but that these same organisms can break the associative bonds to produce emergent, relational forms of learning. These studies also illustrate the value of converging evidence in science, in that Beran uses a wide range of methods (e.g., computerized tasks, physical manipulanda) and species (i.e., humans, apes, rhesus monkeys, capuchin monkeys) in his studies.

Capuchin monkeys have participated in studies of cognition and social cognition since they arrived at the LRC in 2005. In one line of inquiry, Sarah Brosnan her collaborators have studied how these monkeys and other animals respond to inequity. Monkeys are given a token to exchange for a food item. Brosnan has shown that nonhuman primates will readily exchange the token for a piece of food such as a cucumber unless the animals observe conspecifics receiving a more highly preferred piece of food (e.g., a grape) in exchange for the same token. Under these specific circumstances, a capuchin monkey will refuse to exchange or eat the cucumber to protest the unfairness! Brosnan and collaborators have also studied monkeys’ and chimpanzees’ responses to tasks requiring cooperation.

Scholars from across the country come to the LRC to study its unique animals. Dr. J. David Smith and Dr. Barbara Church conducted research remotely (from U. Buffalo) with these animals for many years. They were recruited to join the Georgia State University research community, where they have continued their cutting-edge comparative studies of metacognition and concept formation. From California, Dr. Bart Wilson examines economic decision-making by capuchin monkeys. In Oregon, Dr. Michael Posner, Dr. Mary Rothbart and their colleagues examine the interaction of genes and experience in the development of neural processes that support cognitive competence of children, using tasks that parallel those employed with the LRC monkeys. Here in Atlanta, Dr. Bill Hopkins uses noninvasive neuroimaging techniques to trace the changes in brain structures and functions across primate species, identifying the neurocognitive developments that underlie motor control, self-regulation, and communication.

Today, the LRC is home to the Core Research Scientists and their graduate students, who collaborate with other GSU scientists as well as others around the world. The topics studied at the LRC span from behavior to cognition to neuroscience, but the main mission remains the same – to conduct ethical, rigorous, and informative research. So that together, we might learn…