Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Repost: The Story of Alex

This is a repost from July of 2006. I thought it was appropriate, given Alex’s passing. Please check out Friday Grey Matters in my archives for many more reports on Dr. Pepperberg’s work with Alex.

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Alex is a 28-year-old African Grey parrot who lives in the lab of Irene Pepperberg, in Brandeis University, and is the eqivalent of a superstar in the bird world. Long ago, Dr. Pepperberg chose Alex at a pet store as neither an exceptional nor sub-par bird. Through the years, Dr. Pepperberg has engaged Alex in a complex form of communication, where, much like a parent teaching a child, Alex is taught the proper “name” for an object. Now, he can label more than 100 items, including seven colors, five shapes, counting up to six, and three categories (color, shape, material of an object). This is amazing when you consider that this bird is working with a brain the size of a walnut! In addition, Alex has learned to ask for an item he wants. When the incorrect item is brought, he will either ignore it, or throw it at the person! :) He has learned to say “no” if an item is incorrect, and to tell his handlers when he wants to go back to his cage, or come out.

Here’s an example of a test that Dr. Pepperberg might present to Alex: seven items on a tray, of differing colors and shapes. She asks “What shape is green and wood?” (This is the way to ask what is the shape of the object which is green and made of wood?) Amazingly, Alex answers correctly over 80% of the time. This is obviously far more than chance, and operant conditioning also cannot account for it as he answers the same, even to novel researchers. The content of the question, and answer, is understood by this bird. She also might ask, “How many wood?” (How many objects on the tray are made of wood?) He looks at the tray for a few seconds, and then answers with a number, again correct 80% of the time! He can replicate this up to six items.

Alex has also “coined” words, or made up new words to use for unfamilar objects. An example of this is when he first encountered an apple. He already knew the word for “banana” and “strawberry, ” and the first time he saw an apple he called it a “bananaberry.” This was hypothesized to be because an apple was red like a strawberry by white inside like a banana, so Alex put the two words together to make a new word! He has done this several times, like calling an almond a “cork nut” because of the nut’s texture like a cork. He can be inventive and creative.