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Irene Pepperberg and Alex

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 7, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication

In the 1970s Irene Pepperberg was studying for her PhD at Harvard in theoretical chemistry but wasn’t really loving it. Then she learned about the interesting work that was happening in training animals to communicate with humans. People were working with chimps and dolphins and amazing strides were being made. She was hooked and threw in her chemistry studies and switched to working with animals,

She decided her animal of choice would be a parrot. You would train them to talk and they lived for a long time. So Irene got a Grey Parrot and called him ALEx, which stood for Avian Learning Experiment.

But the research community thought she was nuts. Parrots had small brains, the size of a walnut, and weren’t parrots merely pets anyway. How could she be objective in her research? Getting funding was hard but she managed to get a one year grant to get started.

In the first 10 years Alex learned 50 labels for objects. He could tell if an object was one of 7 colours, up to 5 shapes, whether the shape was 2-6 cornered and what material is was made from, such as wood.

Irene would ask him questions and Alex would answer.

“Alex, what’s this?”

And he would say, “block.”

“Good birdie, and what colour?”

“Blue.”

“Good boy, and what shape?”

“Four corners.”

“And what matter?”

“Wood.”

But despite the progress Irene struggled to get significant support for her work. Grants would come one year at a time rather than the 3-4 years that was normal. Her marriage broke down but she kept going with her research with Alex.

When Alex was 15 they were asked to do a BBC radio interview. By this stage Alex was developing quite a personality because he could now ask questions and interact with Irene.

To start the interview Irene was in a room with the radio host where Alex could not hear what was happening. She told the audience that she was holding an orange square piece of wood. And then the audience hears Irene’s heels, click, click, click, as she walks into the room with Alex.

“Alex I’m going to ask you some questions, we are going to do some work.” Irene shows the wooden square and says, “What colour?”

And in his little birdie voice Alex says, “No, you tell me what shape.”

“OK Alex, it’s four cornered. Tell me what colour.”

“Tell me what matter,” says Alex.

“OK Alex it’s wood. Can you tell me what colour?”

“No, how many?”

“Alex, there is only one toy here. Alex, come on, what colour?”

“No, tell me what shape.”

“OK Alex, time out, you are misbehaving,” and you hear Irene’s heels click, clicking as she starts to walk out the door, giving him a time out, and then comes a little birdie voice,

“I’m sorry … come here … orange.”

Alex and Irene became famous in both the popular press and among her academic colleagues. They had achieved so much to show how animals can communicate with humans.

Sadly Alex died in 2001 aged 30, twenty years younger that what Irene expected and she was devastated. But she showed everyone that amazing things can be done with time, persistence and a parrot with the brain the size of a walnut.

I heard this story on The Moth podcast. You can hear it here.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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