In 1977, Irene Pepperberg, a recent graduate of Harvard University, set out to do something incredibly bold. She wanted to find out what was going on in the mind of an animal by talking to it. So, she bought a one-year-old African gray parrot named Alex and began teaching him the English language.
“I thought if he learned to communicate, I could ask him questions about how he sees the world,” Pepperberg said.
Well, she’s been at this for over thirty years now and has some impressive results to display. Check it out per National Geographic:
“Some people actually called me crazy for trying this,” she said. “Scientists thought that chimpanzees were better subjects, although, of course, chimps can’t speak.”
Pepperberg walked to the back of the room, where Alex sat on top of his cage preening his pearl gray feathers. He stopped at her approach and opened his beak.
“Want grape,” Alex said.
“He hasn’t had his breakfast yet,” Pepperberg explained, “so he’s a little put out.”
Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate almost one hundred English words, including the sounds for all of these foods, although he calls an apple a “banerry.”
“Apples taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.
“I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language,” she added. “That’s never been the point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.”
In other words, because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, but she could ask him about his knowledge of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room.
She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.
“What’s same?” she asked.
Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”
“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.
“Shape,” Alex said.
By teaching Alex words for different things in his environment, Pepperberg has been able to analyze how much the parrot understands about the relationships between those things. It’s proven to be a remarkable window into his inner thought world.
But, here at Animal Lovers, we’ve always known our creature friends have little hearts and minds…
Here’s a video about Alex… Enjoy!
What do you think?
Do animals have minds like us?