Excerpt: 'Alex and Me'

As soon as I read about Todt's work, I knew he was right, as far as he went. As promising as the approach was, I felt that one could not be certain that the birds understood the sounds they were using. To me, comprehension was key. If, for instance, Alex could produce a string of labels, no matter how clearly he enunciated them, it would be little more than mimicking if he didn't know that they were labels for specific objects or actions. I decided I would modify Todt's method, by, for instance, having trainers A and B alternate roles, so that the bird would learn that either role was possible. In addition, I would have the reward for a correct answer be possession of the object itself. If Alex were to correctly identify "paper," I or my partner would give it to him. Same with "key," "wood," anything. In this way the label and the object would become closely associated in his mind.

Bear with me as I wrap up this description of my training methods, using terms you'd be unlikely to hear in everyday descriptions of parrots learning words in people's homes. What I was planning to do wasn't an everyday exercise, of course. I was planning to demonstrate in a parrot cognitive processes that only humans and higher primates were considered capable of achieving. You need very special conditions to do that and, equally important, to have people believe what you might be claiming.

My training model would have three components. The first is reference, that is, what the word, or label, "means"; for example, the word "paper" refers to the physical object. The second, functionality, is the pragmatics of how the word is used; the reason to learn some odd set of sounds is that you can use it to get a specific, desired reward. The third is social interaction, that is, the back-and-forth, the relationship, between trainer and subject. The stronger the relationship, the more efficient the learning, just as with children. I always asked trainers to be enthusiastic in their exchanges with Alex and to emphasize the targeted labels, just as adults tend to talk to young children. With all this in place, we would have, I believed, the potential to explore the workings of a bird's brain as had never before been done.

Or at least that's what I argued in my grant proposal. Apparently, the review panel was not impressed. On August 19, just two weeks after the "by George he's got it" moment, I received a letter from the panel that essentially asked me what I was smoking. They implied I was crazy to even imagine that a bird brain could master the language and cognitive skills I was hoping to demonstrate. And they further implied I was even crazier to shun the accepted approach of operant conditioning and adopt this highly suspect method of social interaction.

I shouldn't have been surprised. In retrospect, I was perhaps a little naive to expect the panel to give a grant to someone with no training and no qualification in psychology—or any biological science, for that matter—for a project that was at the very edge of what was then known and accepted. I was driven, however, and extremely confident that what I was proposing was going to work. So I was surprised, and very upset—so upset that Alex appeared to think from my behavior that I was angry with him. He cowered from me. "Oh, it's not you, Alex," I said to the poor guy. "It's those damned idiots who can't get out of their old ways of thinking. I guess we're just gonna have to try harder, buddy."

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