Cognition And The Talking Bird

Alex the "talking parrot" died at the age of 31 back in 2007. He participated in many experiments with Dr. Irene Pepperberg that suggested he, and possibly other birds, could think and communicate at the level of a four or five year old child. Today I found a little snippet about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg I'd like to share. The story below is quoted from The Economist print edition:


My parrot and I
Oct 23rd 2008




"The young Irene Pepperberg was not the only child to have been enthralled by the “Dr Dolittle” stories, in which a doctor is taught the language of animals by his parrot. But it is unlikely that anyone will match her tenacity in trying to make the stories come true. For the past 30 years, Dr Pepperberg, who studies parrots at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, has been producing research papers on the cognitive abilities of her African Grey, Alex, who died in September 2007 and who was the subject of an Economist obituary. In “Alex & Me” she has written a memoir of two unusual scientific careers, one of them pursued—not exactly by choice—by a bird.

As a lonely child in Brooklyn, Dr Pepperberg owned pet birds from the age of four, and daydreamed about being able to understand animals’ thoughts. A socially awkward chemistry student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, she writes that talking to her parakeet was often her “only non-work-related exchange of the whole day”. It hardly comes as a surprise that she decided to switch from chemistry to the study of animal communication. When a pet-shop owner picked out an African Grey for her in 1977, she says she already expected that it would come to change the way people thought about the minds of animals.


Thus she knew from the start what she wanted to prove. That may seem suspiciously overconfident, but Dr Pepperberg certainly obtained some striking results. Alex (his name supposedly an acronym for Avian Learning Experiment) eventually learned the names of about 50 objects, knew the numerals from one to six, could perform simple addition and used categories such as similarity and difference, shape, colour and material. He apparently combined words to make up his own expressions (“yummy bread” for cake, for example). He also seemed to combine phonemes to construct new words. Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparently mixing “banana” and “cherry”). Most unnerving of all, he would make spontaneous remarks in appropriate circumstances, such as “What’s your problem?” and “I’m gonna go away now.”

The efforts required to bring forth such little marvels were immense. For the first 15 years of his life, Alex was talked to by his trainers for eight hours each day. Dr Pepperberg adapted the so-called “Model/Rival” method developed by a German ethologist in the 1970s; this uses two experimenters, one of whom, A, “teaches” the other, B, while sometimes switching attention to the parrot. In Dr Pepperberg’s version, A and B alternate their roles, to mimic the social context in which children learn to speak.

Finding the money for such labour-intensive research has been a constant struggle, and Dr Pepperberg relies on private donors and the generous help of volunteers. There is little sign, however, that other labs will be able to devote the enormous efforts required to replicate her work, as scientific method requires. Unfortunately for Alex’s legacy, this may mean that he comes to be remembered as little more than a unique curiosity."








More About Alex:


Dr. Pepperberg's new book titled Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process will be released on October 28, 2008 (in just a few days).

Product Description from Amazon.com:

On September 6, 2007, an African Grey parrot named Alex died prematurely at age
thirty-one. His last words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, were "You be good. I
love you."
What would normally be a quiet, very private event was, in Alex's
case, headline news. Over the thirty years they had worked together, Alex and
Irene had become famous—two pioneers who opened an unprecedented window into the
hidden yet vast world of animal minds. Alex's brain was the size of a shelled
walnut, and when Irene and Alex first met, birds were not believed to possess
any potential for language, consciousness, or anything remotely comparable to
human intelligence. Yet, over the years, Alex proved many things. He could add.
He could sound out words. He understood concepts like bigger, smaller, more,
fewer, and none. He was capable of thought and intention. Together, Alex and
Irene uncovered a startling reality: We live in a world populated by thinking,
conscious creatures.
The fame that resulted was extraordinary. Yet there was
a side to their relationship that never made the papers. They were emotionally
connected to one another. They shared a deep bond far beyond science. Alex
missed Irene when she was away. He was jealous when she paid attention to other
parrots, or even people. He liked to show her who was boss. He loved to dance.
He sometimes became bored by the repetition of his tests, and played jokes on
her. Sometimes they sniped at each other. Yet nearly every day, they each said,
"I love you."
Alex and Irene stayed together through thick and thin—despite
sneers from experts, extraordinary financial sacrifices, and a nomadic existence
from one univer­sity to another. The story of their thirty-year adventure is
equally a landmark of scientific achievement and of an unforgettable
human-animal bond.

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