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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Famous animal behavior study lives on at Brandeis

Published: September 28, 2012
Section: Features

With a bachelor’s degree from MIT and a doctorate from Harvard, both in chemistry, it’s difficult to see how Dr. Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct associate psychology professor at Brandeis, became interested in animal behavior and psychology.

Her interest in birds, however, is a deeply-rooted one. Pepperberg developed an interest in parrots long before she had any interest in actually researching them. “I was a kid living above a store—no children to play with. And my dad bought me a parakeet,” Pepperberg said.

Pepperberg got into the field of animal cognition while at Harvard, partially through her doctorate in theoretical chemistry. She remembers learning that scientists were doing research on intelligence and interspecies communication with apes and dolphins: “And I had this epiphany that no one was doing this kind of work with a bird, and a bird can talk.”

She decided to sit in on classes dealing with bird behavior and child language while finishing up her doctorate in chemistry. “I attended every lecture I could, and attended every conference I could to learn more about this nascent field,” Pepperberg said.

Pepperberg was awarded her first grant to do research on parrot cognition and communication while at Purdue University.

Pepperberg bought Alex, an African Grey Parrot at a pet store in Chicago. She enjoyed a long and personal relationship with Alex, with whom she studied avian intelligence for 30 years. “

“Alex was always eager to work with you,” Pepperberg remembered fondly.

Alex proved to animal psychologists that birds do, in fact, have much more complex brains than originally thought. “Nobody believed that a bird could think about abstract relationships. Nobody thought that birds had anything resembling a cerebral cortex,” said Pepperberg, remembering how she first felt when she applied for a research grant.

During his lifetime, Alex learned to recognize about 100 objects, seven colors and five shapes. He understood concepts of relative size, difference and similarity, category, number and absence, and he could identify quantities up to eight. Birds may not have a cortex but they have an equivalent—and it takes up about the same percentage of space in their brain as an ape’s cortex does in its brain.

Now that Alex has passed away, the “Alex Foundation” still supports research on Grey Parrots. Griffin and Arthur, current parrot subjects, live here at Brandeis University where Pepperberg is continuing her work on bird cognition. A 501(C)(3) organization, the foundation is partially funded by private donations and also sells merchandise to support student lab assistants and research in general.

Griffin, however, isn’t as advanced as Alex was at this stage in his life. “Alex was an “only” bird the first 15 years of his life … When we got Griffin he had to share. Alex interrupted all of [Griffin’s] sessions. He would butt in to give the right answer,” Pepperberg said. She also tried some different training methods with Griffin that didn’t work as well; Griffin was exposed to audio and video tapes, whereas Alex was taught mainly by live human demonstration.

Still, Griffin has done some important and interesting work. Alex showed that parrots had object permanence but Pepperberg was able to track the development of that skill in Griffin. Griffin also exhibited mutual exclusivity, which is an early stage in language development often found in young children. Mutual exclusivity is the idea that every object has a label, but only that one label (e.g., a child will initially insist that a dog is a dog, not an animal).

Mutual exclusivity also helps individuals learn by the process of elimination. If an individual knows the color red and is given a red ball and a chrome ball, and he is told to pick up the “chrome” ball, he’ll know to pick up the one that isn’t red—even if he doesn’t know what chrome is.

Arthur, in contrast, is doing different work. “We got Arthur while at the MIT Media Lab to do work on animal-human computer interfaces. After Pepperberg’s position at the Media Lab lost funding, he did some vocalization work, but he wasn’t interested in [that].” He also has kidney problems, which make him much less stable than Griffin or Alex and harder to work with.

“Some days, he just doesn’t feel very good.” He has, however, along with Griffin, participated in a study on physical exclusion (knowing where to find a hidden object after being shown where it can’t be) and another on sociality.

Because Arthur and Griffin are working on tasks that differ considerably from those studied with Alex, some researchers are still skeptical of Alex’s intelligence. “Some people still find it very difficult to believe that a bird can do this kind of work. They argue that Alex was some kind of Einstein,” Pepperberg said. But she herself is confident that these birds are intelligent; they just all have different histories and different personalities.

The question next presented is that of the African Grey Parrot. Pepperberg explained that she wanted a bird that could speak very clearly, and Grey Parrots have that ability. Research on Grey parrots’ number concepts had also been performed by researchers in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s, and that provided some foundational base work. Although Pepperberg thinks working with other parrot species would be interesting, it would require a lot of work to learn about their proclivities and extra space to separate the species.

Pepperberg’s interests in this research are threefold: One, to learn more about bird psychology; Two, to help raise awareness about African Grey Parrots, which are an endangered species; and three, potentially to use the training techniques developed for the parrots to help children with disabilities, especially children with autism.

While Pepperberg and her lab assistants truly enjoy their work, there are still difficulties in getting enough money to fund them.

Pepperberg is only an adjunct associate professor here at Brandeis. She doesn’t teach any classes, though she does lecture at Harvard. She has also said that sometimes she feels as though she’s “not really a part of the Brandeis community.”

That being said, Pepperberg appreciates the students. There are currently 12 Brandeis students that work with her as lab assistants. “All types of students work with me … some are pre-vet, some major in psychology and some just want to be around parrots … they’re all great students.”