Well, its been a long time coming, and further delayed by grants, labwork, and Irene’s hand injury. But, Irene and I finally got on the phone last weekend and chatted a bit about her work, her birds, and her uncertain future in the field. Irene Pepperberg is someone who I’ve admired since early undergrad, and she’s been a bit of a role model for me. During grad school interviews, I tried to track her down and interview with her at the University of Arizona (who lied and told me she was there, despite her moving to MIT). I would have loved to have worked with her, although now I realize that the financial constraints of her lab wouldn’t have allowed for it. It was so amazing to finally be able to talk to her. I wish I would have had the nerve to tell her she’s one of the reasons I entered the field. Not surprisingly, she’s also Pepper’s favorite researcher.
(Read below the fold for the Q’s and A’s)
Q. Initially your research background was not in comparative cognition and language. How did you become interested in this field?
A. Well, as a child my father spent a lot of time taking care of his sick mother, and my own mother was not around much. My mom would have been great in the 21st century; she was very modern, she wanted to work but got fired when she got pregnant with me. So, I had budgies and I “imprinted” upon them. Then when I was getting my PhD in theoretical physics at Harvard, I was watching a nature program on NOVA about African Greys and ‘why birds sing’. And I though, ‘No one is doing this research, and parrots would be great subjects as you might be able to teach them to communicate!’ This was while I was writing my thesis, I just had a total change of heart about my research. Obviously I had no background in this at all, so I started spending 40 hours a week reading all the background literature in psychology as well as 40 hours a week finishing up my thesis. I was so excited about it, I just didn’t even care it was this huge upheaval in my academic life and career.
Q. Why’d you choose African Greys?
A. They were the clearest speakers and had already been studied a little bit in the literature.
Q. Where’d you find Alex?
A. I found Alex in, oh gosh, I guess it was 1977! He was in a pet store. I had been looking in so many stores, but had only found wild-caught birds that were not acclimated to people at all, and would not be suitable for handling and training. Then I finally found some captive-bred African Greys had didn’t screech when you approached them, they were just cautious and curious and just looked at you with interest rather than fear. Alex was very well-behaved but it took a LOT of work to get him trainable. I started training him right away pretty intensively.
Q. Human language processing and production relies on specific brain structures (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas). Are there thought to be equivalent structures in the avian brain?
You should probably talk to Eric Jarvis about that. He believes that human language structures and avian song nuclei are derived from the same pallium, but I haven’t really had the opportunity to study it myself.
Q. Why might parrots have evolved to be such superior mimics, and how would this serve them well in the wild?
A. Well, think about it this way. In the wild, parrots have a much shorter lifespan than Alex or Pepper would. They get eaten, get sick, etc. As African Greys mate for life, each member of the pair faces the likelihood of outliving its mate and needing to find another (and another, if the next one gets eaten, and so forth). Songs and vocalizations are flock-specific and mating pair-specific, so the need exists that Greys would be able to learn new songs and sounds throughout their lives. Those song ‘dialects’ are unique and help facilitate bonding in the flock, or in the pair, so in the wild it makes sense for the parrot to stay adaptive for reproductive success.
Q. Do you think that Alex is representative of African Grey intelligence, or exemplary in his abilities?
A. Alex is a normal African Grey–I chose him *because* he was average–would has had an enormous amount of education and training. So, no, he doesn’t reflect the abilities of African Greys as a whole….more like their potential. Alex also wasn’t trained like a normal bird; most people talk to their bird but not in a way that makes it easy for the bird to learn meaningful communication. So, maybe, as we learn more about Alex that might change.
Q. Do you have other Greys? How many training sessions do they get per day?
A. We have two other African Greys: Griffin (11) and Arthur/Wart (8). Wart is named after the character in The Sword and the Stone. The birds get 4-5 sessions a day, well depending on their desire to cooperate. Only one bird at a time can go through a trial because I’m in just one room right now, so its kinda slow going.
Q. One room? So I guess you’re funding situation currently might be described as…..
A. Grim. Very grim. In September of 2001 I left the University of Arizona when I was offered a job at MIT’s Media Lab. Unfortunately a little more than a year ago MIT had a funding crunch and I was out. Now I’m a visiting adjunct professor at Brandeis where I pay THEM $100,000 a year to teach and to have a lab through them. I don’t’ have free student help, I pay them as well. So, yeah, grim. Thats why we have the Alex Foundation, its the only way I support the lab and my work.
Q. Are you looking for positions?
A. Looking? I’ve been looking for 5 years. There’s not much out there except entry level neuroscience faculty positions, and my education background is quite different than my research experience. And I can’t go back to U of Arizona, either. That position evaporated as soon as I left for MIT.
Q. Do you consider your Greys pets or research subjects, and how does this distinction affect your research?
A. Colleagues, definitely colleagues. Friends. They are like respected collaborators, people I work with. Because I can’t force them to work; they work when they feel like it. Alex sometimes knocks all the things on the floor, or answers everything wrong. We know he knows the answer, he’s given it a thousand times correctly. On those days, you can’t push him.
Q. What’s his favorite reward?
RAW cashews and sterile corks.
Q. Detractors of animal language and comprehension research often point out that while Greys may make word-object associations, they can not comprehend or use grammatical structure. Why is this an important distinction?
A. No, there’s no grammar there. But I don’t look at my research as “language research.” I consider it just a two-way communication code, but that is enough to relay meaningful information. Alex and the others have simple ideas of sentence frames, but, of course, the use the trained word order. Thats how they were taught, and they stick to that. However, American Sign Language also doesn’t have a strict grammar system: “Me you eat” gets the point across same as “Eat You Me.” The controversy of animal language (and what define language per se) has been developed outside my research, perhaps as a response to it as it provokes many “What ifs.” But, perhaps the distinctions are too strict: children 4 or 5 years old don’t have sophisticated grammar yet we consider them to use language, and there are several tribes out there (one in Peru) that don’t use grammar the way other languages do.
Q: Have you ever noticed an instance where Alex (or another Grey) has “taught” or corrected one of his cohorts?
A. Sure, sometimes when we’re training Griffin or Wart on a word, Alex screams across the room “say better” (meaning speak more clearly), or sometimes he answers the question himself. Just depends on his mood.
Q. Can Alex recognize representations of objects, like on TV or a picture?
A. Thats a tough one. Its dicey. Almost all the time we try to show Alex a picture he responds as “four corner paper,” so it seems that that is what he thinks we’re asking him. Not sure how to address that, as its not like he’s giving an incorrect answer. When he watches videos, he can tell whats the same or what different; also color shape. But it gets tricky there because parrot vision is much different than ours; its in the UV range. So we can’t be sure what he’s seeing. One anecdote though, he seems to recognize my picture rather than as “four corner paper.” Once when i was traveling and away from the birds, someone showed him a picture of me and he went to tweak my nose, straight for the nose like he would in real life. So, perhaps really salient things he recognizes, but its hard to say or to test.
Q. Your Greys have shown the ability to “coin” words for unknown objects. Can you give an example of that?
A. Well there was really only one hard example of a true word coin, and that was “Banarry.” Which is a hybridization of banana and cherry, when we introduced him to an apple. That was definitely intentional, as he kept repeating it until we trained him on apple. There was one so-so case: “Banacker” which might have been banana and cracker. That was a dried banana chip.
Q. How did you choose the model-rival technique as the best one for teaching parrots?
A. Well when I was going though the psych literature, one of the first things I came across was operant conditioning. Specifically, Charlie Furster was using it to train apes. However it was such a convoluted method, I mean, it took me 2 hours to figure out what the animals are supposed to do. So, I figured there had to be a better way.There was nothing in the literature for a while, until a German researcher published on the model-rival technique in Grey parrots. We modified that technique and its worked beautifully. Also may have potential for teaching developmentally delayed children one day.
Q. How is a “zero concept” different from an idea of absence, and which does Alex display?
A. The second one. Thats why we were cautious and called it a “zero-like” concept. His notion of zero is the absence of the set, which is still quite significant. It displays the ability to think about things not in the immediate environment, which mirrors our findings on object permanence in parrots as well. Its funny cause at first, we would ask Alex ‘How many cork?’ when there was no cork, and he would just look at us like we were crazy.
Q. Have you seen evidence of “Footedness” in birds?
A.Yes, 90% of parrots are left footed, if you take footedness to mean what foot they prefer to eat with/stand on/etc. As for lateralization of song nuclei, that hasn’t been done in parrots. The closest model was parakeets, and it was not found to be lateralized in parakeets. But I don’t think thats a good model at all, as parakeets aren’t footed while parrots are.
Q. How long does it take to train Alex on a new word?
A. It can take up to 1 day if he already knows the phonemes involves. Or, it can take up to a year to learn a new word if the phonemes are difficult for him. Things that require lips are difficult for parrots, for obvious reasons. We find ways to get around that though.
Q. Do you find that Alex and the other Greys still mimic environmental noises and bits of conversations?
Well, the youngest Grey likes to mimic water gurgling. And Alex has what we call his “good night routine.” For that, it doesn’t matter who starts it (me or him) but it goes:Ok, I’m gonna go eat dinner. You be good. I’ll see you tomorrow. Goodbye.” With each of us taking turns saying the next thing. During the middle of the day, we’d have a similar routine except I would say ‘I’ll be back in an hour” instead of tomorrow. And he knew the difference, and knew to expect me to come back in a shorter amount of time.
Q. How much does it take to run your lab, and where do you get money?
$100,000 to run the lab and we get money from bird groups, and giving talks, books, and the Alex Foundation merchandise. Its always a struggle to make sure we have enough though.
Q. What do you see as the goals of your work with the Greys?
A. The questions I want to answer are “How does the avian brain work, how is it organized differently?” Also, there’s the conservation issue–people tend to conserve what they understand and what are most like them. Research on the parrot intelligence and learning are therefore important to illustrate that. Parrot training, and the model-rival technique, might be a potential model for disability learning as well.
Q. I’m sure you’ve heard about the kerfuffle going on at MIT currently. Did you find that MIT was a good place for female scientists?
A. I also attended MIT for undergraduate, and I was one of 15 female undergrads. Honestly I never experienced discrimination at that time, although I know some of the other women did. Sadly, I didn’t come into contact with serious sexual discrimination until I got to Harvard, when I was getting my PhD there. When I got engaged as a grad student, my mentor’s administrative assistant said “When are you leaving?” like getting married was the death knell of any academic career. Also there were evening seminars during the time the Boston Strangler was out prowling around raping and killing women. Some women faculty complained about the time, how they didn’t want to walk around at night but it was all ignored. And, I’ve been at many interviews for a position as they only woman, the very obvious affirmative action candidate. I think things have come a long way since then, but when someone like Larry Summers opens his mouth and you realize things haven’t changed as much as you think.
Thanks so much to Dr. Irene Pepperberg for giving of her time. If you are feeling generous, why not stop on over to the Alex Foundation which supports her and her Greys? There’s quite a lot of cool stuff for any animal lover on you xmas list.
(Please note that I was typing out notes while on the phone w/ her, so it might not be verbatim quotes.)