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Many Minds

Sep 7, 2022

And we're back. We're rested, we're rejuvenated, and we're ready for Season 4 of Many Minds! We're also, frankly, a bit hot. As I am recording this there is a heat dome parked over California and there is sweat under my headphones.

But, more to the point, we've got a great episode to kick the new season off. My guest today is Dr. Irene Pepperberg. For more than forty years now, Irene has been doing groundbreaking research on parrots, with a focus on how they think and communicate. She is best known for her work with an African Grey parrot named Alex. Alex learned English words for numbers, shapes, colors, and more; he asked questions and talked to himself; he sometimes even invented words of his own. He was, in short, pretty remarkable.

In this conversation, Irene and I talk about Alex, as well as his successors in the lab, Griffin and Athena. We talk about these animals' histories and personalities and their most impressive feats. We discuss how parrots are like human children in some ways—and unlike them in others. And while we talk a lot about verbal abilities, we also discuss visual working memory, delayed gratification, and optical illusions. Finally, we touch on the power of symbols, parrot communication and cognition in the wild, and the future of animal communication research. 

One quick production note: there are just couple of patches of fuzzy audio here. Please do stick with it though—things get smooth later on and this conversation is just too chock full of cool stuff, really wouldn’t want you to miss it. 

Alright friends, a very warm welcome back, and on to my chat with Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here


Notes and links

3:00 – For some reflections on the early days of “animal language studies,” see Dr. Pepperberg’s recent paper ‘Nonhuman and nonhuman-human communication: Some issues and questions.’

5:00 ­– Dr. Pepperberg is the author of two influential books about her research with Alex. The first is The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots; the second Alex & Me, which was a New York Times bestseller.

6:15 – One of the original studies on parrot vocal abilities by Dietmar Todt. For more on the “modelling” technique that Dr. Pepperberg adapted, see her recent paper.

9:00 – Read an article that the New York Times published about Alex upon his death in 2007.

10:00 – Photos of Alex, Griffin, and Athena can be found on the Alex Foundation website.

17:00 – For an example of Dr. Pepperberg’s classic work teaching the parrots to talk about shape and color, see here. For one of her more recent studies on shape learning, see here.

19:00 – For an example of Dr. Pepperberg’s classic work teaching the parrots to talk about numbers, see here. For a review of numerical concepts in the parrots, see here.  

24:00 – Alex originally learned “none” in the context of learning the concepts of same and different. For the original paper, see here.

28:30 – For Dr. Pepperberg’s recent work on delayed gratification, see here and here. For a recent effort to “revisit” the classic Marshmallow Task in human children, see here.

33:00 – For a recent study by Dr. Pepperberg and colleagues on “inference by exclusion”, see here.

35:30 – A popular article about recent research showing that baby parrots babble. For discussion of babbling in baby bats, see our earlier interview with Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild.

37:00 – An older article in Scientific American describing some of David Premack’s work teaching apes to use symbols.

38:00 – A recent paper by Dr. Pepperberg and colleagues involving a “shell game on steroids” (to test “visual working memory manipulation”).

41:00 – A recent paper by Dr. Pepperberg and colleagues looking at the parrots’ ability to reason about probabilities.

43:30 – For the “transformative power of symbols” idea as it applies to humans, see here.

45:00 – See Dr. Pepperberg’s recent article reviewing her research on visual perception in parrots, including work using optical illusions.

48:00 – A recent research article comparing birds’ and primates’ brains.

51:00 – For Dr. Pepperberg’s recent reflections on the past and future of “animal language studies,” see here.  

54:00 – A short animated video explaining the “gavagai problem,” which is associated with the issue of the “indeterminacy of translation.”


You can read more about Dr. Pepperberg’s work and collaborators—human and parrot!—at the Alex Foundation website.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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