Short-term memory, attentional control and brain size in primates

Carel van Schaik, Ivo Jacobs, Judith Burkart, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Caroline Schuppli, Tomas Persson, Zitan Song

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Brain size variability in primates has been attributed to various domain-specific socio-ecological factors. A recently published large-scale study of short-term memory abilities in 41 primate species [1] did not find any correlations with 11 different proxies of external cognitive demands. Here we found that the interspecific variation in test performance shows correlated evolution with total brain size, with the relationship becoming tighter as species with small sample sizes were successively removed, whereas it was not predicted by the often-used encephalization quotient (EQ). In a subsample, we also found that the sizes of brain region thought to be involved in short-term memory did not predict performance better than did overall brain size. The dependence on brain size suggests that domain-general cognitive processes underlie short-term memory as tested in [1]. These results support the emerging notion that comparative studies of brain size do not generally identify domain-specific cognitive adaptations, but rather reveal varying selection on domain-general cognitive abilities. Finally, because attentional processes beyond short-term memory also affected test performance, we suggest that the delayed response test can be refined.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Publication statusSubmitted - 2023

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Behavioral Sciences Biology
  • Psychology (excluding Applied Psychology)


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