Irene Maxine Pepperberg The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999. 345 pp.
Alternately fascinating and boring, this detailed summary of Pepperberg’s 20+ years of careful research into the cognitive and communicative capabilities of her avian subjects is primarily aimed at other scientists. It is not an especially difficult read—though I admit I did merely skim or outright skip over much of chapters 15 (signal analysis of parrot speech formants) and 16 (physiology of how parrots produce their vocalizations)—but it is a fairly dry, academic presentation.
Her results are quite interesting, though. Parrots have cognitive capacities that in many instances equal those of the Great Apes, which is certainly not a result one expects. “Bird-brain” may have to take on a new meaning synonomous with “smart.” Her main subject, “Alex,” can answer questions about quantity, color, shape, relative sameness or differentness of objects, and even about the absence of sameness or difference.
Of special interest is the method she used to train her subject birds. She developed her method, which she calls “Model/Rival” and abbreviates “M/R”, based upon studies of how the birds learned in their natural environment. In Model/Rival training sessions, a human trainer interacts with a human partner in the presence of the bird. The trainer asks the other human a question, such as “What color?” or “How many?” while presenting one or more objects. The other human acts both as the model for the bird and as a rival for the trainer’s attention. This Model/Rival either answers the question correctly (modeling the behavior for the bird), or answers it incorrectly and gets scolded. Trainer and model switch roles frequently, to prevent the bird from associating a question with a particular person.
This training method has been very successful, and I wonder if it would make an effective pattern for use in e-learning aimed at humans. I hope to try it out some day: “You and your annoying co-worker Bob are both bucking for the same promotion. Your boss will promote whichever one of you demonstrates the greater mastery over this material. Click Begin when you are ready to compete with Bob by answering the following questions. Don’t take too long, though, because if you don’t answer quickly enough, Bob will chime in with his answer.”
Well, maybe something like that anyway.