A Little Bird Told Me

/ by Mary Rogan /

Alex the Parrot knows all the colors of the rainbow. He likes green beans but not women (generally) and recognizes that they are "different." He can count to six and identify five shapes, and he knows a Hot Wheels when he sees one. But is Alex smart?

Alex the Parrot died last week at the age of 31. We post this story from the Summer 2004 issue of Seed in his memory.

Illustrations by Andrew Kuo, Photograph by John Woo

If Alex were a dog, he would be 189 years old. But he’s a parrot and he’s 27. In parrot years that’s 27. Unless Alex chokes on a nut or falls out of his cage, he should live another 50 years. In a perfect world, healthy parrots can live 80 to 90 years. Dr. Irene Pepperberg found Alex in a Chicago pet store near O’Hare Airport when he was a year old. He was one of eight birds sitting in a cage, waiting to be adopted. There was nothing special about Alex that caught Pepperberg’s eye. She needed a bird and simply told the storeowner to reach in and pick one out. Bird in hand, Pepperberg returned to her lab at Purdue University to begin her research. And so began Alex’s career as the world’s smartest parrot.

Alex is an African Grey parrot, but in all likelihood, he wasn’t born in Africa. Like most birds in pet shops, he was probably bred as a “domestic” in North America, but that’s all we know about Alex’s early history. We don’t know how his parents are or his exact birth date. Some of this mystery was appealing to Pepperberg in her search for the perfect specimen to test her theories about avian intelligence. She didn’t want anyone thinking she’d picked a “super” bird that had been bred especially for smarts. In Pepperberg’s hands, Alex (whose name stands for Avian Learning Experiment) was going to show the world that parrots can do more than, well, parrot. Namely, they can mean what they say. If Polly wants a cracker, she really wants a cracker. Or, as Pepperberg explains it, birds can think. And not in the way you’ve seen your dog thinking when you catch him staring at the exact spot on the kitchen floor where you dropped a pot roast six months ago. According to Pepperberg, Alex his the cognitive abilities of a 6-year-old child. He can identify objects, colors, and shapes, and he’s not just repeating what he hears. This is a substantial claim, given that Alex’s brain is the size of a shelled walnut.

Twenty-five years ago this claim meant a radical paradigm shift in the study of animal intelligence—a shift that’s still happening today. In this venture, apparently, size really does matter, and until Alex came along, the study of cognition, and especially the acquisition of language, had focused exclusively on large primate brains with frontal lobes. The idea of jumping from that group to one entirely outside the mammalian class was hard for many to swallow. But to Pepperberg, that seemed a little like the guy who loses his keys in a park at night but then searches for them under the street lamp because that’s where the light is best. Sure, primate brains look a lot like ours, but why not throw the net a little wider? A parrot’s ability to speak—barring a real-life Planet of the Apes—represents a significant built-in starting point for communication. Given the opportunity, what else might these birds be capable of? To Pepperberg it was a reasonable question—but when she applied for her first NIH grant, they told her to go pound sand. When she came back the second time, she brought Alex’s first report card, which showed he was recognizing and naming objects. This time, they didn’t say no. If Pepperberg could put her money where he parrot was, Alex would be poised to crash the gates of the exclusive “frontal lobes only” intelligence club. A thinking bird would topple everything we’d previously assumed about animal intelligence.

I was a little apprehensive about meeting Alex. First off, he’s famous. Way more famous than me. If you Google Alex the Parrot you’ll get over 85,000 hits. If you Google Mary Rogan you’ll get a fraction of that, and most of them are about dead Irish women from County Cork. Alex has his own web site where you can buy Alex coffee mugs, tote bags, and even glossy, autographed photos. Interviewing celebrities is tricky. One minute they’re all sweetness and light, and the next they’re snarling and snapping and you’re out on your ear. Driving to Boston, I was pretty sure Alex wasn’t going to like me. I don’t have the best karma with birds.

On my fifth birthday, I let my mother’s bird out of his cage. He hopped from his perch to my hand and then headed straight for the open kitchen window. For a brief delusional moment, I imagined he’d turn around; I could stuff him back in his cage and somehow salvage my birthday party. I think the bird was yellow. Or maybe green. I know he was small. He looked even smaller as he sailed over the pine trees at the same instant that my parents pulled into the driveway, back from the bakery with my birthday cake.

The truth is, birds freak me out a little. Maybe it’s their weird, weeble-wobble-but-they-don’t-fall-down necks. Or their glassy, nobody’s-home eyes. Or their lethal bottle-opener beaks. Whatever it is, things never really got better after I sprung Mom’s canary, assigning it to almost certain death in the wilds of Westchester. But I was open to the possibility that Alex, the world’s smartest bird, could be the swing vote.

These days, Alex lives at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, a tiny New England hamlet that could double as Hester Prynne’s hometown. He used to live at MIT, until he got caught in a financial squeeze play at the school’s Media Lab. Pepperberg lost her grant, and she and Alex moved to the basement of a building on the Brandeis campus.

Alex’s room is shockingly small at about ten feet by six feet. He shares it with two other parrots, Griffin and Wart, and Pepperberg’s lab manager, Arlene Levin. Arlene’s desk is crammed into the corner, and every time the door is opened, it bangs against her chair. At the (not so) far end of the room is Alex’s cage. Directly across from him is Wart, and next to him is Griffin. The rest of the space is taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves. These are crammed to bursting with boxes of Shredded Wheat grains, nuts, Jelly Beans, toys, and plastic containers holding all the objects Alex can identify—colored Popsicle sticks, tiny balls of wool, geometric shapes, plastic and metal keys, miniature Hot Wheels trucks, and plastic numbers and letters. Somehow, I was expecting better digs for the world’s most famous bird.

The floor is covered with newspaper, and the newspaper is covered with bird shit and half-chewed pieces of grapes, green-bean skins, nuts and grain. There aren’t any windows, but Pepperberg has hung a couple of beige sheets on the wall for effect—and to cover up the bunker-like concrete blocks of the wall. To simulate natural light, there are two full spectrum floor lamps that darken gradually toward the end of Alex’s day.

Between the shabby mock curtains and the floor lamps, it looks like a low-budget, animal themed porno shoot is about to take place.

Arlene tells me to approach Alex slowly. He doesn’t like it if you breeze right up to him as if he’s just any old bird. She warns me not to touch him and shows me the scars on her hand just in case I don’t believe her. Alex runs back and forth along the top of his cage and lets loose with a long low wolf whistle that leaves me feeling strangely flattered but mostly terrified. I’m’ trying to act casual while Alex sizes me up. He bobs his head up and down and turns his back to me when I try to say hello. I keep saying hello to his ass, but he doesn’t seem to like that either. I’m wondering if Arlene knows what to do if Alex attacks me. His beak is menacing and significantly bigger than it appears in his autographed photos. I’m worried about losing an eye and trying to remember whether avian flu is fatal. I’m pretty sure it is. Arlene warns me that Alex doesn’t like women as much as men. He especially likes tall men. This isn’t the first time I’ve regretted being a short female. Arlene suggests I just find a seat and let Alex get used to me. I perch on a gray recycling box and try not to meet his flitty, glassy eyes in case that pisses him off.

While Alex and I pretend not to look at each other, I steal peeks at him. He’s about the size of a Nerf football, but most of that is feathers—he only weighs 470 grams. He’s not colorful in the way you might expect. His feathers are an elephant gray, with a splash of daring red on his tail. Despite his scary beak and spookily thick tongue (it looks like a second beak), Alex is strangely beautiful. He paces along the top of his cage and spits out strings of words: “Green bean,” “Wanna nut,” and out of the blue, “I’m sorry.” His voice is lower and more distinct than I’d expected. He has pretty big feet, and I’m wondering if that’s significant. Arlene says he doesn’t have any kids. Never had the time or the chance and besides, kids would have distracted from his career.

I feel a bit foolish because clearly Alex doesn’t feel like talking, at least not to me. Arlene is feeling sorry for me and suggests I take out some of his toys and ask a few direct questions. I’m supposed to tap him gently on his killer beak with an object and ask a question. The miniature toy truck looks safe. Until this point, I’ve lamented my freakishly long arms. Now, from well over two feet away, I whack Alex on his nose and ask, “What toy is this?” Alex freaks out. He squawks and puffs up and flaps his wings, and I drop the truck. He stabs me with a withering look, and I slink back to my recycling box. Clearly, this question is off-limits.

Arlene tells me not to worry. Alex doesn’t always like meeting new people, and he’s been especially crabby lately. She reassures me that he really can’t swoop down and take an eye out because Alex doesn’t know how to fly. Pepperberg suspects he had his wings trimmed when was quite young and missed the window (so to speak) to learn. Apparently birds, like us, learn things best when they’re young. At the front end of my back nine, I decided to rock on and start guitar lessons. After six months, I can play all the chords to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (but not in any particular order). Even if Alex was inspired to fly at this late date, his flight muscles have atrophied. Sometimes, in the past, Arlene tells me, he hasn’t even had enough feathers to get off the ground because he plucked them out when he got nervous, agitated, or depressed.

For the new few hours, I huddle in Pepperberg’s lab while students wander in and out and make small talk with Alex. Alex’s teachers are Brandeis students who volunteer their time to run him through three 20-minute sessions a day. right now it’s the end of the school year, and students are coming in for last-minute goodbyes. They stroke Alex’s neck and call him sweetie or baby. One tall, lanky fellow wanders in, and Alex is delighted. He nuzzles and cuddles and lets himself by held. All the while, I’m starting to worry that Alex really does hate me. Everybody knows that animals have great instincts, and if an animal doesn’t like you, you might be a creep. There had to be some way to make Alex warm up to me. Arlene gives me a nut to give to Alex. I extend my shaking sweaty palm, but Alex jerks his head at the last minute, and I wind up pitching the nut at his skull. One of the girls rushes over to give Alex another nut and apologizes for me. Alex’s openly hostile stares have given way to indifference. This interview is over. Arlene says I should come back later for the end-of-year pizza party for Alex and the student volunteers.

There’s something heart-poundingly thrilling about hearing an animal speak. Remember Mister Ed? “A horse is a horse, of course, of course. And no one can talk to a horse, of course. Unless of course the talking horse is the wonderful Mister Ed!” Man, I loved that show. It wasn’t just that Mister Ed could speak to his hapless owner, Wilbur. It was what he said was hilarious. That, and the fact that Mister Ed always clammed up when anyone other than Wilbur came into the stable. Once, sometime after freeing my mother’s canary and maybe after too many episodes of Mister Ed, I was absolutely sure I heard my cat speak. Naturally, it was just the two of us in the kitchen when she opened her mouth and let out a string of expletives. It was fantastic the way she cursed out everyone and everything in her life. Nobody believed me, of course, and the cat never spoke again, but it didn’t matter because she said everything I was thinking.

I didn’t go to Boston to hear Alex speak. There’s a parrot right here in Toronto who sits in a cage outside a pet shop and creams “Fuck you” if you say hello to him. No, I came to Boston to see Alex think. To see if after 27 years of non-stop training, Alex is doing more than turning tricks for nuts and green beans by saying what we want to hear. Is he really understanding, and then communicating in meaningful ways based on that understanding? What is the relationship between choice and Alex’s answers? In other words if I stood next to an NBA player, could he say I’m smaller? Pepperberg says no, because he doesn’t have a label for me. Even when Alex understands a concept, he’s still hampered by his limited vocabulary. A simple yes or no answer isn’t part of his repertoire because, in Pepperberg’s view, that would give him a 50/50 chance on every question and she could never be sure he wasn’t just guessing. Before I leave, Arlene and an earnest young woman, Olga, offer to run Alex through a session for me.

Olga and Arlene warn me not to expect much because Alex has been off his game lately. They tell me he knows it’s the end of year, and he’s getting depressed about that. He’s been known to pluck half his feathers out after the party. I take a seat in Arlene’s chair by the door while Alex gets ready to sing for his supper. They gather up some of Alex’s teaching tools and bring him out of his cage and onto a wooden perch. Almost immediately Alex starts squawking, “Wanna go back, wanna go back.” “Wanna go back” means he wants to end the session and go back to his cage. Of all the Tourette’s-like bursts that have flown out of his mouth this morning, this is the first time I believe he’s really trying to communicate.

Arlene and Olga sit next to each other on stools so they’ll be at eye level with Alex. If they were higher, he would be annoyed. If they were significantly lower, he wouldn’t take them seriously. Right now, Alex is having trouble settling. Olga thinks it’s because he knows all the students are leaving soon. Arlene says he’s just in a bad mood, and also he’s probably not crazy about me being there. Alex looks at me like this is my fault, and I’m grateful my chair is significantly lower than his perch.

The cornerstone to Alex’s training revolves around a “model/rival” technique developed by German biologist Dietma Todt in 1975 and modified by Pepperberg. Instead of using a two-part model system, Pepperberg uses three parts. Nobody works with Alex one-on-one. There are always two students modeling behavior to provide additional reinforcement and a rival for Alex at the same time. Pepperberg also avoids giving Alex extrinsic rewards, which is the way most of us train our dogs. You plead, cajole, and beg Rover to sit. Usually he stares at you vacantly and then, when he finally sits, you immediately stuff him with treats. Any reward Alex gets has to be intrinsic to the task at hand: When he correctly names an object, he gets that object. If he wants something more than that, such as a nut, he has to ask for it specifically.

Alex is looking put-upon as Olga and Arlene start picking objects out of containers. He’s screaming for a green bean, and when they poke him on the beak with some of his toys, he pokes back and says “Wanna nut.” “You can have a nut when you tell me what this is,” Olga says. She tells Alex he’s being silly and to settle down. Alex is tanking, and the flop sweat coming of Olga and Arlene is painful. Alex looks miserable and can’t stop pecking on his perch. His “Wanna go back” sounds pathetic. Every time he gives a wrong answer, he’s scolded, and then Olga and Arlene model the correct behavior. Arlene taps Olga with a fluffy ball of wool and says, “What’s matter?” (This means, “What is this object made of?”). Olga answers, distinctly, “Wool,” and Arlene givers her a nut. Olga makes yummy smacking noises and pretends to eat the nut. This goes on for 20 minutes, and I can’t understand why Alex doesn’t poke somebody’s eye out.

After a string of consistently wrong answers, Alex is flapping his impotent wings and chanting “Wanna go back, wanna go back.” Olga is practically begging now, and she asks Alex to name the color of a toy. He says every color he knows. Olga says he’s doing that on purpose to annoy her. When Alex says “Wanna go back” for about the zillionth time, it finally hits me who he reminds me of—Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.. Hoffman plays an autistic savant who makes Tom Cruise a fortune by counting cards in Vegas. In between his circus-like mathematical feats, Rain Man keeps muttering “I’m an excellent driver.” Wanna go back? If there were a window in Alex’s bunker, I’m pretty sure I’d throw it open and jump out with him. Finally, Alex gets to go back to his cage, where he starts pulling at his feathers.

Despite his dismal performance in front of me, Alex has racked up some impressive stats. According to documented lab results, he can identify 50 different objects, seven colors, five shapes, quantities up to six, and the concept of bigger, smaller, same, and different. His accuracy rate is about 80 percent. According to Pepperberg, Alex isn’t just mimicking correct answers; he’s thinking them through and making reasoned choices.

Pepperberg believes that it’s Alex’s ability to organize objects into groups of color, size, shape, and quantity that gives rise to his language abilities. In children, the acquisition of language seems to coincide with the emergence of physical skills—specifically, stacking toys or lining up cups according to size and color. What flows from this is the ability to “stack words,” or create meaningful sentences. In some sense, physical competency prompts the verbal. In other words, first I’ll do it, then I’ll say it. This sequence appears in primates as well and, as with humans, originates in Broca’s Region, the part of the brain involved in speech.

Alex doesn’t have a Broca’s Region, but presumably (if we could get an MRI) he has something like it. All the more reason, in Pepperberg’s view, why Alex is the perfect specimen for studying the relationship between language and thought. Why keep looking under the street lamp when we can look at Alex, chatty grandchild of the dinosaur, with a brain that doesn’t look anything like ours does but might be key in understanding the evolutionary bases of cognition? The trouble, Pepperberg tells me, is that people, especially scientists, have difficulty believing most animals can think. Sure, we might believe a chimp or a dolphin—a mammal, that is—has some cognitive ability, but a bird? No way. Pepperberg laments that we’re still tyrannized by the legacy of psychologist B.F. Skinner that insists all animals—including humans—are about reward and punishment and nothing more; that anything we might elicit beyond these is merely a stimulus response.

Pepperberg tells me all of this while she shares a slice of vegetarian with Alex at the end-of-year party. In a slightly larger room down the hall from Alex’s student mill around, talking about their year with Alex and their summer plans. Alex sits on Pepperberg’s hand, tearing at the pieces of green pepper that she’s stripped from her pizza for him. The students take turns carrying Alex around, but after about 30 minutes, he’s fed up and starts repeating his “Wanna go back” mantra. Except for the missing festive hat, Alex looks exactly like an overwhelmed 2-year-old at this own birthday party. Somebody brings him back to his cage, and the party rolls on with out him.

Pepperberg may be right that Skinner’s ghost still has psychology students running rats through mazes and pressing levers for food. But research is increasingly stepping outside of the box to explore animal intelligence beyond simple stimulus-based responses. Still, a bird is a hard sell—mostly because of the size and structure of its brain. (That expression didn’t come from nowhere.) Frontal lobes—and-our uniquely top-heavy ones—have long been the gold standard for intelligence. If Alex is doing what Pepperberg says he’s doing, he’ll challenge the primacy of big foreheads—and ultimately the prevailing theories about the evolution of cognition, which tag language as having uniquely primate origins. Size and structure won’t preclude cognitive destiny, and the skeptics who’ve been nipping at Pepperberg’s heels for 25 years will have to eat crow.

But not just yet. David Palmer is a professor of behavioral psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Smith is only 80 miles from Brandeis, but Alex probably wouldn’t want to visit. Professor Palmer is a loyal Skinnerian and says Alex is an extraordinary example of Skinner’s theories. He believes Pepperberg is doing an incredible job of eliciting conditional responses through reinforcement and modeling techniques—techniques that, he says, pump the heart of Skinnerism, Imagine, Palmer asks, if we can do all this with a parrot, what might we accomplish with more complicated organisms? While I’m imagining that, I’m also imagining arteries popping in Pepperberg’s skull in response to Palmer’s interpretation of her work with Alex.

Palmer explains he’s got nothing against the bird. From his perspective, we’re all puppets on the string of stimulus/response. You can get Alex to do what you want with a nut. With humans, a nut won’t cut it, but something else will. If that sounds like another way of saying we all have a price, it is. Palmer concedes that his take on Alex’s accomplishments is firmly rooted in his own point of view. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. When I press him to generalize about how animal intelligence is viewed in the scientific community, he laughs and says it depends on what lens you’re peering through. On one level, the argument comes down to a philosophical debate. And in that sense, it could be considered a moot point. But when it is applied to the interpretation of the research, it can mean the difference between Alex getting an honorary PhD or, like the rest of us, just whoring for nuts.

Put more elegantly, Palmer believes the differences in intelligence are quantitative, not qualitative. Meaning all animals are intelligent, but some are more intelligent than others. Quantitatively, humans are at the top of the heap. Birds, alas, would be fairly low down on the full-basket chain. “We have the same mechanisms as Alex,” Palmer says. “But we have more, we are sensitive to more things.” Palmer figures that if lab rats could talk, they could do all the things Alex does and more. By speaking, Alex simply speeds up the reinforcement training by providing immediate feedback. You know instantly whether he’s getting it right or wrong. For Palmer, the fact that Alex can speak is a stroke of luck, not genius.

In the meantime, Pepperberg can’t prove what’s going on in Alex’s head because his brain is too small to produce MRI images. And even if MRIs were sensitive enough to capture a brain his size, Alex couldn’t get one because he has a metal pin in his leg. Pepperberg could probably wire him to an EEG machine to measure electrical brain activity, but, in her view, that wouldn’t really tell us anything about how his brain ins working. But if we could image Alex’s head, what would we accept as proof of intelligence? In humans, learning is the daughter of intelligence, and this is demonstrated through behavior. Generally, the more you learn, the smarter you are. But how do we learn? For our brains to develop we need to build the tools before we start hammering, and the first ones come via “dendritic arborization.” Neurons sprout finger-like dendrites to reach out to other cells and make connections. This neural network lays down a communication system that peaks when we’re around the age of 12. In normal development, we create so many connections that we have to start pruning in order to avoid a Tower of Babel. During adolescence, our brains start picking and choosing what to keep and what to throw out. After that, we take up permanent residence in our frontal lobes, which houses much of what we’ve come to describe as intelligence: memory, impulse control, initiative, decision-making, and planning.

Brain imaging can’t yet show us neural connections being made, but it can show us the result. MRIs and PET scans are more sophisticated than X-rays and EEG machines, but they still haven’t caught up with our questions. We can’t flip on a machine, watch our heads like a TV set, and see our hippocampus getting stuffed full of memories. The best we can do is take what we can see in brain imaging, match it up to people’s behavior, and attempt to fill in the holes of how we learn. In a sense, it’s a little like matching genotypes with phenotypes. This is the gene for baldness—hey look, there’s a bald guy.

After 25 years, Pepperberg believes she has some idea of how Alex learns—or at least how long it takes. If she wants to teach him something (like the word “pink”) based on a concept he already understands (color), and he has the phononomes to put it all together (“puh,” “ing,” “kuh”), it might take as little as three days. If he has to learn the concept and pronounce new, strange words, it could take months of intensive repetition through her model/rival technique. In many ways Alex learns like we do, but the restrictions on his learning are unique. Some, like yes/no, have been imposed by Pepperberg. Others have more to do with Alex’s own limitations. He may have the cognitive abilities of a 6-year-old, but he’s 27. And thought mothers everywhere “label” the world for their children (“Look at the nice doggie”), we don’t have to whack them on the nose a million times with a puppy before they learn the word dog.

Despite the warnings that Alex would be devastated by the students’ departure, he’s in fine form when I see him the next day. Arlene is delighted that he didn’t pluck his feathers out overnight. Inspired by Alex’s good mood, she says she’ll run another session for me after lunch.

For this session, Alex is a new man. He’s eager and rips off half a dozen correct answers in a row. I think Arlene is as relieved as I am. Alex nuzzles the wool ball and says “woool” in a delightful, throaty drawl. He bites at the toy truck and says “truck.” He then looks at two identical shapes, and when asked “Difference?” he says “None.” When he’s shown two different sized, differently colored pieces of cloth and is asked which one is bigger, he says “greeeen.” Perfect scores across the board. He’s relaxed and stretches comfortably, like a confident sprinter on the blocks. I work up the courage to piggyback on all the good vibes in the room and extend a nut to Alex. He accepts. Then he starts to sway from foot to foot, saying “Wanna go back, wanna go back.”

There’s no doubt that when Alex is good, he’s very good. Watching him listen, ponder, and give the right answers is impressive. But what’s happening in that walnut brain? According to Pepperberg, all the things we expect from a small child. He can understand compound questions, which means he has to think about two things at the same time. For Alex, the question might be “What’s blue and three sided”? For parents with small children, the milestone is “Go brush your teeth and wash your face.” When Alex sees Pepperberg hide a nut under a cup, he knows that nut didn’t just disappear. It’s right there, under the cup, waiting to be eaten. And if he lifts the cup up to get it and it’s not there, he flaps and squawks and makes sure you know he knew it was there, and he wants it back. Object permanency, or the notion of something existing even though you can’t see it, is a critical stage in psychologists Jean Piaget’s theory of child development. Likewise, when Alex correctly points out that two things are alike, Pepperberg argues he’s demonstrating an understanding of the concept of absence: Sameness can only be recognized by understanding what’s missing. But does any of this make Alex smart?

Directly tied to this question is the quagmire of who gets to define “thinking.” We do, of course. To some people, this seems perfectly reasonable. To others, like Pepperberg, it’s a cruel bias that not only lacks imagination but also sabotage the possibility of learning from Alex. Specifically, Pepperberg feels that Alex is an invaluable tool to learn about learning. What can Alex the Parrot tell us about how we think? Which brings me back to Rain Man.

In the movie, Hoffman’s character can’t tie his own shoes, but he can glance at a spilled box of toothpicks and say there are 246 on the floor. He can memorize half a telephone book in one evening, but thinks a chocolate bar costs a hundred dollars. He rocks back and forth, walks in circles, and screams insanely if he misses his favorite television show. In short, he’s the stereotypical autistic savant. The genius locked inside.

About halfway though the movie, when Rain Man says “I’m an excellent driver” yet again out of nowhere, Tom Cruise’s character screams at him, “I’m not buying this…. I know you’re in there somewhere.” Maybe.

When autism was first identified in the ‘40s, it was believed to be the result of bad mothering. Cold, unresponsive mothers naturally begat socially crippled children. This view persisted until brain-imaging technology caught up with more progressive ideas in the ‘70s. Today, researchers agree that autism is neurologically based, and there are several “hot spots” in the brain that may account for it, including abnormalities in the size of the cerebellum, brainstem, hippocampus, amygdala, limbic system, and frontal cortex. Brain imaging shows both deficits and surpluses, with respect to size and neural density, in all of these areas. Again, researchers have to take these results and connect them to the behavior they see in autistic children—and from there, posit some theories about what might be going wrong inside an autistic’s brain.

Diane Sherman is a therapist in Monterey, California, who works with children across the autistic spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, the mildest form of autism. After hearing Pepperberg speak twelve years ago, she stated using the model/rival technique to work with her patients. In as little as two sessions, she could stop a child from obsessively flapping his hands or rocking back and forth. With an Asperger child, she could model a normal reciprocal conversation, and within a few sessions, the patient improved his conversational skills dramatically.

Sherman’s research broaches a prickly idea: We can accept that we’re not all thinking about the same thing, but we can’t accept that we’re not all thinking the same way. If autistic kids can learn through repetitive modeling of behavior does that mean there is something about the way Alex learns that could unlock the doors of autism? Is a parrot their best shot at approximating normal behavior?

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist at the University of Vermont who knows Alex and has worked extensively with birds, believes that thinking is overrated. Thinking, that is, according to the guys writing the rules. By insisting on classifying humans as separate from animals, we get to define the parameters of something that is so universal it can never be defined. Of course animals think. They’re just not thinking about the same stuff we are. And in many cases it would be maladaptive for them to have that capacity because there are much better, more reliable, and quicker alternatives. Coming from Heinrich, our love affair with human thinking is a little like the dweeby kid who gets to set the rules just because he brings the bat and ball to the game.

But we do cling to distinctions. Theory of Mind is the human trump card. This says that not only do we know what we’re thinking, we can imagine what the other guy is thinking about, too. We know it by the yawn when he’s bored, the shifty eyes when he’s lying, and the tears when he’s crying. The definition of Theory of Mind is the cognitive ability to understand that others have beliefs and intentions that are different from one’s own. It says we’re smart enough to get over ourselves, to not be so self-involved that we can’t put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Just because you’re in a good mood, you have the sense to know your wife might not be. People who don’t believe animals can think point to Theory of Mind. When was the last time your dog imagined you were dreading going to work this morning? And if you point to the extraordinary things animals can do, like get to Florida for the winter without phoning Delta Airlines, these same people will say that’s just instinct. But are instinct and learned behavior mutually-exclusive? Did Alex use his instincts to find the nut under the cup?

Pepperberg isn’t through with Alex yet. She wants to give him a leg up to the next rung on the animal-intelligence ladder. Can he learn concepts like over and under? Shorter and longer? Order a pizza with everything on it? Whatever he does next, Pepperberg is confident he’s rocked the foundation of the scientific world’s take on animal intelligence and the evolution of cognition. Now, and in the future, the debate will have to include frontal lobe-challenged animals like Alex the Parrot.

The last time I see Alex, I’m thinking about the scene in Catcher in the Rye where Holden is trying to “feel a goodbye” so he can leave his crummy boarding school. Holden hates it when he can’t feel anything, when he pushes back. I’m waiting for something from Alex so I can say goodbye. I stand next to him at his cage, and neither of us says anything for awhile. I’m wondering what it’s like to have so many people knocking at your door, trying to get a peek at what’s going on inside. What’s it like to be a stranger in a strange land? We’re writing the rules of every test Alex takes. In essence, we are the lingua franca and the hoop Alex has to jump through in order to be considered “smart.” It must feel a little like waking up every day and being the new kid at school.

It’s time to say goodbye. Alex cocks his head and looks at me with one eye, and even though he’s already at his cage, he says “Wanna go back.”

Originally published September 12, 2007

Tags cognition communication identity intelligence

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