Are Monkeys Smart? Everything We Know About the Monkey Brain and IQ

Written by Janet F. Murray
Published: September 21, 2022
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It’s no secret that monkeys are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. For centuries, scientists have used them for research and experimentation due to their high intelligence and ability to learn new tasks quickly. But are monkeys smart leads to further exploration of just how intelligent these primates are. Interestingly, there is no clear cut answer to this question as intelligence is notoriously difficult to measure. However, scientists have gained insight into the monkey brain by conducting various studies.

Does Brain Size Equal Intelligence?

Specialists assumed that the size of an animal’s brain is directly proportional to its intelligence. But scientists now know this theory is not necessarily true regarding monkeys. Yet, it is true that some species of monkeys have larger brains than others, but there is still no proof that this results in increased intelligence. In fact, research suggests that the size of a monkey’s brain may have more to do with its body size than anything else.  So, while it is still an open question whether size equals intelligence in the animal kingdom when it comes to monkeys, the answer appears to be ‘no.’

Do Monkeys Have an IQ?

mother and baby macaques
Rhesus macaques showed that IQ in monkeys is measurable.


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As mentioned earlier, measuring intelligence is difficult as it has many different facets. However, one way to measure IQ is by looking at an animal’s ability to understand and use symbols.

In an early 2000 study, researchers found that monkeys can understand symbolic representations of objects and concepts. The study featured two Rhesus macaques. Researchers showed these macaques different images on a computer screen. The monkeys had to choose between two symbols representing different actions for each image.

For example, one image might show a banana with a symbol next to it representing ‘eating.’ In contrast, the other symbol represented ‘not eating.’ The Rhesus monkeys could choose the correct character more than 80% of the time, showing that they understood the concept of what each character represented.

However, it’s important to note that the monkeys in the study were not using words or language. Instead, they were simply choosing between symbols that represented different actions. Therefore, this study does not mean they could communicate their thoughts and ideas the same way humans can.

Which Monkeys Have the Highest IQs?

When it comes to smarts, one new world monkey stands out above the rest – the capuchin. These little guys have an impressive IQ. They are known to use tools to help them with tasks, and they are quick learners.

Chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys, but they are one of the most well-known examples of intelligent old-world primates. They can use tools, communicate using gestures and even develop their own cultures. In addition, studies show that chimpanzees can understand basic human concepts such as numbers and words.

One of the most impressive things about chimpanzee intelligence is their ability to remember things. For example, they recognize the faces of other chimpanzees and even human beings for years.

So, which monkey has the highest IQ?

It is difficult to state for sure as there is no definite way to measure animal intelligence. However, chimpanzees are generally considered one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and they definitely have some of the highest known IQs.

What do chimpanzees eat - chimpanzee using tool
Chimps are the most intelligent primates.

©Danny Ye/

Human Versus Monkey: Brain and IQ

Macaque monkey holding a sweet potato.
The human brain contains 16 billion neurons while monkeys have 6 billion.


While monkeys are undoubtedly clever, they aren’t as intelligent as humans. This discrepancy is likely because people’s evolution has resulted in larger and more complex brains than monkeys.

The human brain is approximately three times larger than monkeys and contains around 16 billion neurons. In contrast, a monkey’s brain has just over 6 billion. This difference in brain size explains why people can think more abstractly, use language, and engage in other complex cognitive tasks that monkeys cannot do.

Even though people are more intelligent than monkeys, there are still some similarities between the two. For example, people and monkeys can use tools, which is a sign of intelligence. Additionally, people and monkeys are social creatures who live in complex social groups. So, while monkeys may not be as intelligent as humans, they are still smart creatures with many similarities to us.

Monkey Brain – Spontaneous Metacognition

It is well-documented that humans possess what is known as metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking. We use this ability constantly, whether monitoring our performance on a task or trying to understand another person’s state of mind. But what about monkeys? Do they also have this ability, or is it unique to humans?

Recent research suggests that some primates have metacognition, and one of the most surprising examples is the monkey. In a series of studies, monkeys spontaneously used metacognitive strategies when faced with a challenging task.

For instance, monkeys were presented with two different types of problems in one study. They solved the first type with simple trial-and-error learning. At the same time, the second required a more sophisticated reasoning process. When presented with the second type of problem, the monkeys spontaneously started using metacognitive strategies, such as trying to understand the task before solving it.

This ability to think about thinking is quite remarkable, suggesting that metacognition is not unique to humans. So, how does this influence our understanding of monkey cognition?

 Although still early days, evidence suggests that metacognition is a more widespread ability than we thought. This progress could have vital implications on how we view the cognitive abilities of animals. It may even help us better understand metacognition’s evolution in our own species.

Monkey Intelligence Concerning Social Interaction

Monkeys show higher intelligence because of their ability to navigate complex social interactions.

©Millie Bond – Copyright A-Z Animals

Several theories suggest living in groups is a sign of advanced intelligence in monkeys. One idea declares that cooperation to survive in large groups requires more sophisticated cognitive abilities. Another theory suggests that the ability to navigate complex social relationships requires higher-level thinking skills.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that monkeys are much smarter than we give them credit. And their ability to live in groups is just one more example of their impressive intelligence.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with more than eight years of content creation experience. My content writing covers diverse genres, and I have a business degree. I am also the proud author of my memoir, My Sub-Lyme Life. This work details the effects of living with undiagnosed infections like rickettsia (like Lyme). By sharing this story, I wish to give others hope and courage in overcoming their life challenges. In my downtime, I value spending time with friends and family.

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