​Primates in Virtual Space: Using Virtual Reality to Compare the Spatial Intelligence of Humans, Apes and Monkeys​

Francine L. Dolins
The Regents of the University of Michigan

Project Summary

Humans are equally at ease in the worlds of perception and imagination. Unicorns and dilithium chambers often feel as real as narwhals or nuclear reactors. Indeed, conceiving imaginary mental scenes is one of the human mind’s masterstrokes. Our ability to dream drives innovation and invention. To what extent can non-human animals represent imaginary scenarios?

Answering this question requires a bold approach like the one adopted by Francine Dolins. Using virtual reality (VR), her project explores how imagination and creativity shape primates’ construction of reality. Her team will design a virtual world where monkeys, apes, and humans face biologically relevant challenges mimicking those found in the real world. These include such vital tasks as finding food and avoiding competitors.

The virtual reality (VR) multi-user touchscreen platform harnesses cutting-edge software and hardware to generate realistic, ecologically relevant scenarios, suited to capture diverse intelligences. Most studies simplify stimuli, which, paradoxically, makes tasks too complex. A key innovation here is the creation of complex, engaging, and realistic environments to discover how imagination and creativity shape primates’ construction of reality.

This project directly addresses the Foundation’s aim of recognizing the contours of intelligence. To do so, it will target intelligence defined as the computation of novel information derived from prior knowledge and experience. It will also capture its diversity by focusing on various species and cognitive processes, including memory, inference, planning, reasoning, symbolism, and deception.

Project Details

Project Duration

25 July 201824 July 2021

Core Funding Area

Big Questions


Diverse Intelligences

Region of Activity

North America

TWCF Number


Amount Awarded



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