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Dr. Irene Pepperberg (born April 1, 1949, Brooklyn, New York) is a scientist noted for her studies in animal cognition, particularly in relation to parrots. She is a visiting professor of psychology at Brandeis University and the MIT media lab. She is well known for her comparative studies into the cognitive fundamentals of language and communication, and was one of the first to try to extend work on language learning in animals other than humans (exemplified by the Washoe project) to a bird species. Dr. Pepperberg is also active in wildlife conservation, especially in relation to parrots. She is currently studying the differences in avian and mammalian brain function.

Research work[edit | edit source]

Although parrots have long been known for their capacities in vocal mimicry, Pepperberg set out to show that their vocal behavior could have the characteristics of human language. She worked intensively with a single African Grey Parrot, Alex, and reported that he acquired a large vocabulary and used it in a sophisticated way, which is often described as similar to that of a two year old child. Pepperberg and her colleagues have sought to show that Alex can differentiate meaning and syntax, so that his use of vocal communication is unlike the relatively inflexible forms of "instinctive" communication that are widespread in the animal kingdom. Although such results are always likely to be controversial, and working intensively with a single animal always incurs the risk of Clever Hans effects, 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 that 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 Dr. Pepperberg devised to teach parrots, their response exceeded expectations.

From work with the single subject Alex, Pepperberg and her colleagues have gone on to study additional African Grey Parrots, and also parrots of other species. A final evaluation of the importance of her work will probably depend on the success of these attempts to generalise it to other individuals.

Model-Rival technique[edit | edit source]

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 that the student sees that the process is fully interactive. The parrot, in the role of student, tries to reproduce the correct behavior.[1]

The use of this model rival technique has resulted in Alex identifying objects by color, shape, number and material at about the level of chimpanzees and dolphins. His language abilities are equivalent to those of a 2-year old child and he has the problem solving skills of a 6-year old. Alex is learning the alphabet, can count up to six objects and is working on identifying objects from photographs.

Pepperberg counters critics' claims that Alex has been taught a script by explaining that the controls and tests she uses make it impossible for him simply to recite words when she asks questions. According to Pepperberg, Alex must understand labels and objects to answer her questions.

The Alex Foundation[edit | edit source]

Pepperberg started The Alex Foundation, which supports Pepperberg and her team's research. Funds are donated to the foundation and then are used to help care for her parrots and to document her work. She receives funding only through the foundation - she has no federal funding. The Alex Foundation also sells parrot-related gifts to help funding efforts. Author Mercedes Lackey creates jewelry that is sold for The Alex Foundation. The Alex Foundation

External links[edit | edit source]

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