Scientist Irene Pepperberg discusses research with parrots and its implications for human education
RELEASED: October 25, 2007
DANVILLE, KY—Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her 30-year collaborator, Alex, an African Grey parrot who passed away unexpectedly in September, have been leading research into the controversial possibility that humans do not have a monopoly on complex abstract communication. She discussed her research in the Vahlkamp Theater at Centre College this Tuesday evening.
Although parrots are known for vocal mimicry, Pepperberg set out to show that their vocal behavior could have the characteristics of human language. She worked intensively with Alex and reported that he acquired a large vocabulary and was able to use it in a sophisticated way. Pepperberg and her colleagues continue to show that Alex could differentiate meaning and syntax, so that his use of vocal communication was different from the relatively inflexible forms of "instinctive" communication that are widespread in the animal kingdom.
Pepperberg, listing Alex's accomplishments in 1999, said he could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes and understand the concepts of "bigger," "smaller," "same" and "different," and that he was learning "over" and "under." In 2005, Pepperberg reported that Alex understood the concept of "zero."
Although such results are likely to be controversial, and working intensively with a single animal always incurs the risk of "Clever Hans" effects (in which a trainer unwittingly provides cues to the desired behavior), Pepperberg's work has strengthened the argument that humans do not hold the monopoly on the complex or semicomplex use of abstract communication.
Some researchers believe that the training method Pepperberg used with Alex—called the model-rival technique—holds promise for teaching autistic and other learning-disabled children who have difficulty learning language, numerical concepts and empathy. When some autistic children were taught using the same methods Pepperberg devised to teach parrots, their progress exceeded expectations.
The model-rival technique involves two trainers: one to give instructions and one to model correct and incorrect responses and to act as the student's rival for the trainer's attention. The model and trainer also exchange roles so the student sees that the process is fully interactive. The parrot, in the role of student, tries to reproduce the correct behavior.
Pepperberg counters critics' claims that Alex was taught a script, by explaining that the controls and tests she uses made it impossible for him simply to recite words when she asked questions. Pepperberg says that Alex had to have understood labels and objects to answer her questions.
Pepperberg's research continues with other parrots.
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