'Alex & Me': The Hidden World Of Animal Minds Although his brain was no bigger than a walnut, Alex the African gray parrot could do more than speak and understand — he could also count, identify colors and, according to his owner Irene Pepperberg, develop an emotional relationship.
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'Alex & Me': The Hidden World Of Animal Minds

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'Alex & Me': The Hidden World Of Animal Minds

'Alex & Me': The Hidden World Of Animal Minds

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. How many times have you wished you could talk with your pet and find out what they're thinking? My guest, Irene Pepperberg, wanted to conduct research into animal thinking, so she bought a talking bird from a pet store, a gray parrot she named Alex. Her idea was to replicate the linguistic and cognitive breakthroughs demonstrated in research with chimps, but using an animal that could talk.

Alex became her good friend, as well as her long-time research subject. As a result of their work together, he probably became the most famous parrot in the world. When he died at the age of 31, he got an obit in the New York Times headlined "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End."

Pepperberg has written a memoir called "Alex and Me." She's now an associate research professor at Brandeis University, and she teaches animal cognition at Harvard. Irene Pepperberg, welcome to Fresh Air. How many words was Alex capable of saying?

Dr. IRENE MAXINE PEPPERBERG (Department of Psychology, Brandeis University): It's hard to say because there were some that were just contextually applicable, something like I'm sorry. There was no contrition. It was just something to say when he had done something wrong, and everybody made sure he knew that was something wrong.

But there was good data on about 50 different object labels, seven colors, five shapes, quantities up to eight just before he died. And then he would combine these to identify, request, refuse, categorize, quantify more than 100 different things in the laboratory. So once he knew block, then he knew green and yellow and orange, and so he could identify the green block, the yellow block, the orange block, things like that.

GROSS: How much ability did he have as a parrot to pronounce the words that you wanted him to say?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: He got most of them right. There are some of them that are really tough, like imagine saying paper without lips, and he actually did that. But final Ss always seemed to get him, so he would say things like Alec instead of Alex. If the S was in the middle of a sentence, like what's that, not a problem, or what's saying, not a problem. He would say six by saying sic, and we had to really push him to say sic, sic to get that final S type noise. So there were some things that were tough.

GROSS: We have lips, and that helps us pronounce. Parrots don't. They have beaks, so that must be an impediment for subtle variations of vowels and consonants?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Not so much the vowels. His vowels come out looking exactly like ours when we do what are called - fancy term - sonographic analysis. There's a machine called the sonograph, and it plots our vocalizations on the - the energy of the vocalization versus time, and you get a pattern that's specific to each vowel for humans, and if you compare Alex's and ours, they're really quite similar.

The change comes on those consonants, those P and V and B sounds that we use our lips, and he uses esophageal speech to do that. So just like people who've had laryngectomies, he will kind of burp those sounds in some way. They don't look that different on the sonograph, but they come up at very different energies.

GROSS: What do you think your work with Alex and with your other parrots disproves about preconceptions of the abilities of animals to think and communicate?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Well, what Alex really did was lay waste to the term "birdbrain" as something derogatory. He really did show that this creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the same types of tasks that the apes did and the dolphins did and in many cases, young children could do. It was a major breakthrough.

Before I started my work, which was in the '70s, most people were studying pigeons. They were studying through a procedure called operant conditioning, where you starve an animal down to about 80 percent of its normal body weight, put it in a box with nothing in the box other than a couple of buttons, and you do a lot of tasks using those buttons and trying to see what the animal can do. And obviously, we did things in very different ways. Instead we treated animals...

GROSS: I should just say, you're talking about starving the animal; that's so it would be receptive to food as a reward stimulus?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Correct, correct. I'm sorry I should have mentioned that. Yes. And you wouldn't - the rewards would have nothing to do with the task that you were giving the animals. So, if you were trying to do, say, you know, that the animal could do a match to sample, meaning you show it a red light, and then you give it a sample of red and green lights and see if it could learn to hit the red light appropriately. And then, if you change the sample to a green light, could it switch over to hitting the green light. And you give it a little piece of food as its reward. This was not the way to treat an animal if you wanted to get communication.

Another big difference in what we did was, we trained Alex to label objects that he initially wanted. So there was a real incentive for him to learn to say key because that was something he could use to scratch himself or wood because that was something he enjoyed chewing. And these were his primary rewards, the close correlation of the label and the object to be learned.

GROSS: Did you feel that, in not going the route of behavioral science and the reward-stimulus model, that you were going against current academic practices in studying animal communications?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. This was a major, major issue. The first time I sent in a grant proposal, you know, asking to get funding to do this kind of work, the reviews came back essentially asking me what I was smoking. Not only did they think that a bird brain was incapable of doing anything like this, but, you know, just to talk to the bird, you had to be crazy.

This wasn't the way one should do research. It couldn't be scientific. And yet, you think about how we talk to our children, and that's how they develop their communication skills. There's a certain amount of wiring that predisposes them for it, but they have to interact with us and talk with us and learn from us. And that was my proposal for the birds.

GROSS: You know, as you mentioned before, you didn't use the behavioral sciences model of conditioning with your parrots. Can you describe the training models that you used to teach your parrots how to communicate?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: We used something called the Model/Rival technique. This was developed initially by Dietmar Todt. We adapted it somewhat, and it is very, very simple. We started by finding objects the bird wanted, and we would decide to train him those labels.

So the bird would be on a perch. My student and I would have this object, say it was a piece of wood that the bird really wanted to chew. And I would show it to my student, who is the model for the bird's behavior and its rival for my attention, and I'd ask her, what's this? And she'd say, wood. And I'd say, that's right. It's wood. And I'd give it to her, and she'd go, wood, wood, wood. And she'd proceed to break it apart, and the parrot's, you know, practically falling off the perch. Alex really wanted this object, and he was really watching.

And then we exchanged roles of Model/Rival and trainer, so the bird saw that one person was not only the questioner and the other one the respondent, but it was in a directed process. And she'd show it to me, and I'd go quack, and she'd turn away and go, no, you're wrong. So the bird would see that not any weird new noise would transfer the object. And she'd give me another chance, and I'd say, wood, and I'd get it, and we'd play that game again.

And we'd do this several times, and then we'd show it to the bird. Now, at the beginning, Alex obviously wouldn't just say wood, but he might go something like, ood, a new noise, and we'd reward that. And then, over several weeks, we would shape it up into something that sounded like wood.

GROSS: And what about things like numbers. How would you get Alex to understand that three objects meant the number three?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was really interesting because for him, you know, wood was wood, so what's this business of all these numbers of woods, and we'd do it using the same modeling technique. I'd show, you know, this is wood, and then I would put a couple of more pieces on the tray, and I'd say, this is three wood. And the student would go, three wood and get the reward, and then she could play with all three pieces of wood. And Alex, if he said three, could play with all three pieces of wood.

GROSS: So, do you think he could count?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: He did. He really had - we really had data on counting. And when we did a study on addition with Alex, we would put numbers of things under cups, and there would be like, say, two nuts under one cup and three nuts under the other cup. And we'd lift the first cup and we'd say look and after a second, cover those nuts. Pick up the second cup, show it to him for a second and say look, put it down. And then with both cups on the tray covering the nuts, we'd say, how many?

And he'd say, five, and it was five, but he couldn't do five and zero. Five nuts under one cup and no nuts under the other. And we couldn't figure that out at first. Every time we did that, he'd say six. And then it finally dawned on me that maybe he's doing what humans do. We're not giving him time to actually count.

So we finished the second half of the trials, giving him now maybe five or six seconds, and lo and behold, he could do it. So this was our real evidence that he was literally counting because he needed time to perceive all those things under the cup.

GROSS: What do you consider some of the most advanced things linguistically and conceptually that Alex was able to achieve?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: When we were studying concepts of same and different, we taught him the label "none" to refer to absence of similarity or difference. So we'd show him two objects and say, what's same or what's different, and he'd say color, shape, matter, or none, if nothing were same or different. Without any prompting, he transferred this when we did concepts of bigger and smaller.

So the first time we showed him something that was the same size, and we said, what color bigger? He looked at me, and he said what same? And I said, will you tell me? And he said none. And then the really exciting part came when we were doing number comprehension. And we gave him trays of different sets of objects with different colors and numbers. So there would be, for example, a tray of three yellow blocks, four purple blocks, and six orange blocks. And the question would be, what color three?

So he'd have to understand the number three, what it meant, find the set of blocks that were three, which would be all mixed up - all the different colors would be mixed on the tray - and then tell me the color of the set that was three. And he did this for about 12 sessions perfectly well, and then, it's a bit anthropomorphic, but he would get bored, and he would - what he would start doing would be to throw everything on the tray on the floor with his beak, just knock it off or give me colors that weren't on the tray or turn his back to me and say, want to go back and be very clear that he didn't want to work.

And so you start getting inventive, and you start using things like Jelly Bellies instead of wooden blocks, that he get one of those for his reward. And you're pushing the edge of the envelope a lot. And then one day, I come in, and I show him trays, and it was three, four, and six things on the tray. And I said, Alex, what color three? And he looks at me, and he says five. And I'm thinking, huh, there's no five things on the tray. And so I say, Alex, come on. What color three? Let's go.

And he looks at me again, and he says five. And this goes back and forth several times, and I'm thinking, what is going on here? He's not throwing everything on the floor. He's not giving me wrong colors. He's saying a different number, and there isn't any of this stuff on the tray. So I finally said, OK, smarty. You know, what color five, not knowing what to expect. And he looks at me, and he says, none.

So not only did he transfer this information from that other task to this task, but he was responding to an absence of number, a kind of zero-like concept. Plus, he had figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question that he wanted to answer, which I think was pretty, pretty sophisticated on his part.

GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg. Her new memoir, "Alex and Me," is about the pioneering research she conducted into animal linguistics and cognition with her parrot, Alex. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg, and she has been studying the ability of parrots to conceptualize and communicate. And her new book is a memoir about her work with her late parrot, Alex. It's called "Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process."

You described a time when you were teaching at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and you were living outside the city. And you had brought Alex home with you, which you didn't typically do. And there were a couple of owls outside the window, which terrified your parrot, Alex. And would you describe the communication that happened after he got really freaked out by the owls?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yeah. I mean, normally, when I would bring him home, the first minute or two, you know, he was outside of his carrier and in this new cage that I would have for him, he would say, want to go back. And I'd say, oh, just calm down. You're fine. And then he would look around the cage, see there was food, there was water, there were toys, and OK, he was fine, and he would settle down.

Well, this time, he was just going on and on, want to go back. want to go back. want to go back. And he's staring out the window, and I finally realized that there were these little screech owls - little, tiny screech owls that were nesting up there. And so my first response was to just close the shade and say, look, they're out there. You're in here. You're safe. But Alex had something called object permanence, and he knew those owls were still out there, and he just kept insisting want to go back, want to go back. So, I had to take him with the carrier and bring him back to the lab that night, and he never really came back to the house after that.

GROSS: It's just so interesting that he could so clearly communicate that he wanted to go back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes, yes.

GROSS: I mean, you didn't have to guess that from the way he was pacing around the cage or just crying.

Dr. PEPPERBERG: No, no. I mean, this was how he communicated with us. I mean, if he asked for a banana, and you gave him a grape, he would literally take the grape and throw it in your face. There was no question. I know what I want, and I want it. And I told you what I wanted, and excuse me, you know, why aren't you responding?

GROSS: Did you ever end up giving him different rewards, so like, instead of just giving him wood when he said wood, that you'd give him his favorite food?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes, yes. After a while, we ended up training him to use "want" so that, when he would look at something, and he looked at that tray with all those boring old objects on it, he wouldn't just look at me and say nut, which, of course, would be the - if it were just the word nut, it would be the wrong answer. But if he could say want nut, then we could separate the response to the question from the desire for a particular object.

And then we could say OK, Alex. You know, tell me how many keys, and then you can have your nut. And he seemed to clue into this if-then proposition and started to work for either nuts or tickles or maybe a different toy. Sometimes he wanted to chew corks. That's sort of like an avian chewing gum. Or go back to his cage. Sometimes that was the reward. You know, yes, Alex. If you do this one trial, you can go back to your cage. So these are the types of things that we'd work with him on.

GROSS: Alex was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection. How did you try to communicate with him when you had to leave him at the hospital?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was so incredibly difficult. He knew phrases like, you know, I'll see you tomorrow. I'll be back, because we would say that every night when we put him in the cage. And so here, we're not leaving him in his normal place. I mean, we're putting him in this little hospital cage in a strange place with all these people, many of whom he didn't know. He knew the vets themselves, but not the technicians.

And as I walk out the door, he looks at me, and he says in his pitiful voice, I'm sorry. Come here. Want to go back. And you sit there and look at him and go, oh, how am I going to explain this? And I just kept saying I'll be in tomorrow. I'll see you tomorrow. I promise. I'll see you tomorrow. And finally, he calmed down, and, of course, I made sure that I was there tomorrow.

GROSS: How do you think he knew to say I'm sorry?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was - again, it was something we called contextually applicable. When he did something bad, you know, if he bit somebody or if he threw things on the tray and we'd get angry at him, and, you know, we'd say bad boy, you know, don't do that, no. He learned over time that, you know, the phrase I'm sorry was very good. He would say it in this pathetic little voice. I'm sorry. And, of course, you're a little - you'll go oh, you know. Your heart melts even though you know there's no contrition.

So that was something that he had associated, and I guess something in his little bird brain said, oh, they put me in this horrible place because I've been a bad boy. Maybe if I say I'm sorry, you know, things will get better. I mean, I'm just guessing at that.

GROSS: You know, the story of Alex's death is just so sad. You learned about it through an email that you got in the morning at your home from one of the people working in the lab who delivered the sad news. Were you able to actually find out how Alex died?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: The autopsy did not show a lot. By sort of subtraction, my veterinarian assumed that it was heart arrhythmia because there was nothing obvious, and he did have a little bit of arteriosclerosis, which meant that, if there was a heart arrhythmia, things could have shut down, and it could have happened very quickly.

GROSS: Did you beat yourself up at all, thinking, is there anything I've done that was responsible for this?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Everyone always beats oneself up in that situation, but my vet was - I mean, immediately was saying to me, no, Irene. Even if you were there, you know, there was nothing you could have done for him, absolutely. And certainly, you know, we gave him the best foods and healthy foods, and he'd just had a checkup a week before. I mean, it was just like the middle-aged guy who goes to his doctor, and the doctor does all the tests and says, hey, you're great. You'll live another 30 years. And the guy walks out the door and collapses. And that's sort of what happened.

GROSS: What do you believe now about the potential of animals to communicate that you weren't sure of when you started your research?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: That that potential is much greater. I think that, for many animals, we need to figure out the appropriate channels to use. Obviously, Alex could talk. People who work with apes use computers and sign language. People who work with dolphins also use computers and sign language.

It's a matter of figuring out what medium. And I think that these animals have - I mean, to emphasize the communication with humans in some ways is unfair because they have their own communications systems that work wonderfully well in the niche in which they live. And in a sense, pushing them to communicate with us is unfair, but it's one way of our actually getting - as Don Griffin, my mentor, would say, getting a window into their minds to actually determine how they process information, how they think by giving them these tools.

GROSS: Irene Pepperberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, you're so welcome. Pleased to be here.

GROSS: Irene Pepperberg's new memoir, "Alex and Me," is about her late parrot, Alex, and her research into animal linguistics and cognition. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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