November 2008

Barbara J. King

features

A Tale of Alex, Bird with a Walnut-Sized Brain (And What a Brain it Was)

For 23 years, Alex the African Grey Parrot had been surprising scientist Irene Pepperberg with his skills, skills no birdbrain was supposed to have. One day in 2000, working at MIT’s Media Lab, Pepperberg soared beyond surprise to sky-high astonishment. She was engaging Alex (so named in honor of the “Avian Language Experiment”) in sounding out phonemes, the individual sounds that make up words.

Alex had already made progress on this task. If shown a tray of plastic letters, the kind parents affix to a refrigerator door to stimulate their kids’ alphabet learning, he responded correctly to questions. Shown an array of letters that included, say, a red "Ch," a green "N" and a blue "S," and so on, when asked, "What sound is blue?," Alex answered “Ssss….”

That day, some of MIT’s corporate sponsors had flocked to watch Alex do a demo. Alex answered a phoneme question correctly, but then piped up with “Want a nut.” Like students everywhere, Alex liked a good snack now and again, and to push his luck with his teachers.

Wanting to keep him on task, Irene pressed Alex with another question, and got the correct answer and immediately, another “Want a nut.” A third Q&A round followed, but this time Alex underscored the seriousness of his craving with the avian equivalent of italics: “Want a nut.”

At this point, Pepperberg writes, Alex “became very slitty-eyed, always a sign he was up to something.” He looked at her and slowly said, “Want a nut. Nnn…uh….tuh.” No birdbrain there! Alex had just leaped from sounding out phonemes to spelling out the letters of a whole word.
 
This vignette is one of my favorites in Alex and Me. It conveys Alex’s smarts but also his sass. Alex was an independent bird with a haughty streak and an entitlement complex. Star of The Alex Project and darling of the media, Alex commanded English to convey one thing most clearly: Boredom was his enemy. Irene and her team of students asked him question after question in a quest to satisfy skeptics with statistically significant results. The whole process just wore on his nerves. And sometimes, as with his pointed n-u-t response, he’d just fly beyond the tests, and leave the testers behind.

Alex & Me is the story of Alex’s life and achievements. Awaiting its publication (just a week ago), I thought back to Pepperberg’s technical articles about Alex’s capacities, many of which I have read. For a primatologist like me, Pepperberg’s data provide a good comparison to what apes can do in cognitive and communicative realms. Year after year, I have shown videoclips of Alex to the students in my Primate Behavior class. Inevitably, the students’ eyes widen and they let out a gasp when they hear Alex ask his human caretaker, “Shower?” (Except it comes out sounding more like “Showa?”, in Alex’s equivalent of a broad Boston accent.)

In this clip, Alex requests a gentle spray-bottle dousing of his feathers in a clear, high-pitched voice, using the rising tones of a request. He’s not answering a question in order to get a reward, he’s making a spontaneous query motivated by his own desire. For a moment, my students seem disoriented. Immersed as they have been in data on vocalizations and gestures made by apes, our closest living relatives, they are unprepared to witness what this bird, our entirely distant living relative with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, can do.  

When it comes to Alex & Me, as it turns out, I was unprepared too -- not so much for what Alex could do, but for the emotional impact of the Alex’s story and Irene’s. (As I read, I switched mentally back and forth from thinking of “Dr. Pepperberg the scientist” to “Irene who cared for Alex.”)

It all started one day in 1977. Irene, in possession of both a new PhD in theoretical chemistry and a deeply rooted desire to study bird cognition (not your everyday combination, to say the least), walked into a pet store in Chicago. She asked the bird director to please select an African Grey for her; minutes later, scooped up in his net, Alex met Irene. He was 10 inches tall, not yet a pound in weight, and about a year old.

Working first at Purdue and then at a succession of other universities, Irene used what’s called the model/rival program of training with Alex. Two human trainers would work together in a room with Alex: Trainer A would ask Trainer B to name an object. If B answered correctly, A would reward her; if not, A would scold her. “Trainer B,” notes Pepperberg, “is the ‘model’ for the animal subject and its ‘rival’ for the attention of trainer A.” Sometimes, A and B would alternate roles. Slowly, Alex was incorporated into the questioning, so that he too was rewarded or scolded depending on his answer. For African Greys, highly social animals in the wild just like apes are, this method was ideal.   

Fascinating data began to come in. Alex responded to questions posed in English that, for instance, asked him to describe or to count objects. Significantly, the key questions were novel, assuring that answers were not memorized ones or offered by rote. This too is captured on film: When presented with a tray full of objects of varies shapes and colors, Alex was asked “How many blue block?” He responds accurately: “four.” When Irene held up two keys, one large and green, the other smaller and gold, Alex correctly answered questions like, “What color bigger?” (Answer: “Green.”)

Alex & Me offers enough detail about training methods and data results to demonstrate that it’s genuine comprehension at work here: Alex understands what he’s saying. Impressive as these passages are, the book is most fun and most convincing about the workings of Alex’s brain when it focuses on Alex himself and his formidable personality. Amusingly for the reader, this personality was occasionally hypersexual: When Alex took a shine to a particular male caretaker, he puffed up his feathers and regurgitated food for the man in an enthusede parrot mating dance.

To whet the appetite, some (G-rated) tidbits from the book:

Naturally, lots of Irene shines through the book, which traces events back to her difficult childhood. It’s Irene who uses the word “haughty” to refer to Alex, and for a bit, I wondered there’d been some kind of cross-species trait transfer. Early if her career, in the wake of a grant-proposal rejection, she writes about the “damned idiots” who lacked the sense to fund her. Later on, too, hints of bitterness and entitlement tinge her words as she describes a forced march from university to university in search of a secure job.

Soon enough, though, my readiness to see hubris leaked away. In the “damned idiots” phase, Irene was angry, but “in retrospect” she realized that iti was “perhaps a little naïve to expect the [grant] panel to give a grant to someone with no training and no qualification in psychology.” My own epiphany came upon learning that, far along into the Alex Project, Irene found herself eating a great deal of tofu and maintaining her thermostat at a chilly 57 degrees because she simply couldn’t find that elusive job security or adequate grant funding. This I found genuinely upsetting: Here was a scientist opening a new window into animal cognition, committed to rigorous testing (and using multiple birds), and the world of academic science found little room for her. No wonder some frustration creeps into the text.

Once in a while the book did get under my skin. Alex was one special bird, and his early death last year was a sad loss. The way some people responded to him, though, I just found creepy. One woman wrote about meeting Alex: “Stunned, I sank to my knees, rested my arm on the table to steady myself…” Another woman, someone who had not met Alex, sent a condolence note to Irene, remarking, “I lost my only child 4 years ago and I have to say that this pain of losing Alex hits me as hard as losing my child.” Over the top, I think.

Yet there’s no denying that Alex was a force of nature. He leaves us with lessons ripe for the learning. Pepperberg’s refusal to exaggerate these is a fine thing: “I need to stress that this [set of results] does not mean that what Alex had was language, but that what he did makes us question a little more the nature of language and how it came to be what it is in you and me.”

At the beginning and end of Alex & Me, Pepperberg allows the voice of science to slip into the voice of love. And it’s the science and the love together that vitalize her conclusion, a conclusion I believe whole-heartedly as I go through my days living with animals and teaching and writing about them: “Alex taught me that we live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures. Not human thinking. Not human consciousness. But not mindless automatons sleepwalking through their lives either... The idea of humans’ separateness from the rest of nature is no longer tenable.”

-- Barbara J. King sends a shout-out to Anna Autilio, bird scientist of the future.