Progress and Plans

PROGRESS (Highlights)

Ever since Project Koko began in 1972, multimedia data has been carefully collected and analyzed and presented to the public via both scientific publications and general books and documentaries. Here are some of the highlights of 4 decades of interspecies communication research with gorillas:

1. Use of Sign Language:  Established scientifically that gorillas like Koko and Michael can learn to communicate using a human sign language, in very sophisticated and comprehensive ways (over 1000 signs for Koko and over 600 signs for Michael).

2. Spoken Engish Comprehension:  Because caregivers regularly spoke to gorillas Koko and Michael as they learned sign language, the gorillas also learned to comprehend much of spoken English.

3. Koko is not Unique:  Demonstrated that the results obtained with Koko were not limited to Koko, by including Michael (a young male gorilla) in the project, and observing very similar capabilities, with personality-based differences. Hence, we will use the term “gorillas” throughout this list to mean “gorillas like Koko and Michael” with the implied hypothesis that these results apply to “gorillas” more generally. (Note:  we have observed similar capabilities in Koko’s current companion, Ndume, who was not formally taught sign language.)

4. Inventiveness:  Gorillas can extend the sign language they learn from us by  a) adding their own natural gestures, b) inventing new names by combining existing ones (eg, FINGER + BRACELET to mean RING), and c) compounding known signs to produce the same “sound” as an unknown sign (eg, sigining an S at the brow to mean BROWSE, or making the sign for NEED on the knee for clarity).

5. Emotional Range:  Discovered
that gorillas can express a full range of emotions, from the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, anger and pain, to more subtle emotions like frustration, embarrassment, guilt, anticipation, jealousy and boredom. For example, Koko has demonstrated a strong and long-lasting emotional response to losing her first kitten (All Ball) and about her desire to have a family that includes a baby (see video).  One of our planned projects will address Koko’s level of emotional awareness more quantitatively (see GEARS below).

6. Empathy Hypothesis:  Observed that gorillas may have empathy for humans and other animals — not only contagious feelings and cognitive inference, but also via deduction (see Project 1, below, under Plans, where we will explore this hypothesis). Associated with empathy is our observation of Koko’s extreme care and gentleness with other creatures (e.g., infant and older humans, kittens, birds and frogs) whom she was much stronger than, and how she controls her strength and weight to maintain that gentleness.  (Mister Rogers did a TV special featuring Koko on “Accepting Differences,” based upon this admirable trait.)

7. Grammatical Use of Language:  Determined that gorillas can use human-taught sign language in a manner that includes elements of grammatical structure in common with human signers.

Koko used an early (1990”s) Apple touch-screen computer to vocalize signs

8. Rate of Sign Language Acquisition:  Determined that young gorillas (like Koko) acquire new signs more rapidly in their first few years than in later years, similar to the schedule of language acquisition observed in human children.

9. Sign Language Modulation:  In ASL and other forms of sign language, human signers often modulate a sign — by changing it’s speed, size, number of repetitions, or location — to change the meaning as if preceding it with an adjective (e.g., GOOD -> VERY GOOD -> VERY VERY GOOD).  Our data include many examples of the gorilas modulating signs in this way, spontaneously.

10. Other Forms of Communication:  Learned that gorillascan use other forms of symbolic communication, including art (for explicit emotional expression and representationally), language cards (pre-printed English phrases that they can arrange in meaningful order), pointing to words, phrases and images in books and newspapers, videos, and on computers.


11. Vocalizations to Enhance Communication:  Learned that our gorillas continued to use intrinsic gorilla vocalizations or “calls” (eg, purring) either alone, or to augment other forms of communication with each other and their human caregivers.

12. Sense of Identity:  Discovered that gorillas can have a strong sense of identity.  For example, very early on, Koko began referring to herself as “FINE ANIMAL GORILLA”  when asked (see video below).  Later, when Koko became used to the concept of “person” — and that humans were people — she began answering the question differently, as “FINE PERSON GORILLA.”   This also implies a sence of belongingto a group (or groups).

13. Paradigm Shift:  Our observations over time with Koko , Michael and Ndume, have collectively changed the common human paradigm about gorillas from one associated with “King Kong” (aggressive monsters) to one associated with “Koko’s Kitten” (gentle, caring, compassionate, tolerant, loving — and capable of grief from loss).

14. Benefits for Free-Living Great Apes: Some of our findings (eg, the true story of Koko’s Kitten, published in both book and video form) have been shown to be a useful tool for conservation, as they evoke human empathy for gorillas.

15. Benefits for Captive Great Apes: These findings also have great potential for improving care in captivity, as they demonstrate that gorillas and humans can understand one another on a much deeper level than previously believed.

16. Benefits for Humans:   Finally, Project Koko has been beneficial for humans, beyond the satisfaction of scientific discovery, and the thrill of “talking with animals.”   For example, teachers report (and we have experienced through presentations to local schools)  that young students exposed to “Koko and Michael” and to Dr.Patterson’s and Cohn’s lifelong dedication to this study are motivated to learn more about other species and our responsibility to them.   Some students decide to pursue careers in science and/or conservation as a result of this exposure.  We believe this is essential in order for the lessons of Project Koko to be fully realized and extended for the benefit of all great apes.


PLANS (2014 and Beyond)

While many of the above observations and discoveries could warrant a full follow-on research project, we’ve chosen to focus first on the following two projects, because of their relatively high potential benefits:

Project 1: Gorilla Emotional Awareness Research Study (GEARS)

This research project will determine the level of Koko’s emotional awareness. The study will systematically and quantitatively assess the degree of Koko’s awareness of:  a) her own emotions and b) the emotions of others.  In other words, the study seeks to define to what extent Koko reflects on her own emotions (or mental states) and those of others.  No previous study has used sign language-trained (non-human) great apes to address this question and hence great apes’ capacity to consciously reflect on their own and others’ mental states has not been experimentally verified.  This study will be conducted in collaboration with Dr. Dieter Steklis, Netzin Steklis, and Dr. Richard Lange (University of Arizona) as the co-principal investigators. It will involve both experimental and observational components.

The experimental component will feature direct interactions between Koko and her caregivers, using a carefully defined sequence of emotional awareness tests that have already been used successfully with humans. Because Koko can communicate with us through sign language, using her extensive vocabulary of emotions, she is in a unique position to tell us about the nature of her emotions and to “comment” on the mental sates of others (commonly known as “theory of mind”).   A strength of the proposed experimental measures is that the results will be directly comparable to results from human studies.  The observational component of the study will utilize Project Koko’s multimedia research archive — featuring decades of interaction with gorillas Koko and Michael.


Together, the observational and experimental components of the study will help us more rigorously test the hypothesis (based on Project Koko) that “gorillas have a level of emotional awareness that is very similar to that of humans.”

In addition to its broad scientific benefits, we expect the results of this study to have direct positive applications for both captive gorillas (in zoos and sanctuaries) and free-living gorillas (in Africa).  For example, Koko’s identification of the emotional significance (or meaning) of gorilla vocal calls (one of the planned experiments) will help us better understand the emotional lives of captive gorillas, and thus interpret their needs and wants — which is important for captive management.  Similarly, experimental demonstration of Koko’s level of emotional awareness will make even more compelling the story of Koko’s Kitten as part of our ongoing empathy-based conservation programs to help free-living groillas.  We believe that the more we reveal about gorilla emotions — even if they are not exactly like our own — the more likely it is that gorillas will be “spared from extinction” by humans.

The GEARS project is under consideration for initial grant funding; we are hopeful it can begin by late 2014.  You can help ensure that vital research projects like this come to fruition by supporting the Gorilla Foundation.


Project 2: Digital Archival and Collaborative Analysis

The Gorilla Foundation has created thousands of hours of video data and tens of thousands of pages of textual data (research diaries), in a project that has thus far spanned 4 decades, 3 gorillas and many gorilla caregivers/researchers, supervised by founders, Drs. Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn. Much of this data is still in analog form (for example video tapes and film reels of the first 25 years) and needs to be digitized as soon as possible, for purposes of preservation, cataloging and subsequent research and analysis.

In this project, The Gorilla Foundation will partner with a major university to digitize all of its analog data, consolidate it with newly acquired digital data, and make it available for collaborative analysis by other researchers and possibly the general public (e.g., for crowd-sourced video sign transcription).

We are in the early stages of exploring such a partnership, but the project could begin as early as 2014 and be completed by 2016 (with your support).  The benefits are enormous — making accessible and usable the largest collection of interspecies communication data in history. This data can reinforce or form the basis of many research studies (including Project 1 above)  and moreover, can be used to design future interspecies communication projects that will have the advantage of being completely digital from the outset.