I had been thinking about doing work on optical illusions with Alex ever since I was at the MIT Media Lab. In the summer of 2005, I teamed up with Patrick Cavanagh, a psychology professor at Harvard, to put the idea into practice. The human brain plays many tricks on us, so we sometimes see things not as they are. Patrick and I planned to ask a simple but profound question: Does Alex literally see the world as we do? That is, does his brain experience the optical illusions just as our brains do?
I envisaged this work as the next horizon in my journey with Alex, beyond naming objects or categories or numbers. Bird and human brains diverged evolutionarily some 280 million years ago. Does that mean that bird and mammalian brains are so different structurally that they operate very differently, too?
Until a landmark paper [pdf] by Erich Jarvis and colleagues in 2005, the answer to this question had been a resounding yes! Look at a mammalian brain and you are struck by the multiple folds of the massive cerebral cortex. Bird brains, it was said, don’t have such a cortex. Hence, their cognitive capacity should be extremely limited. This, essentially, was the argument I had faced through three decades of work with Alex. He was not supposed to be able to name objects and categories, understand “bigger” and “smaller,” “same” and “different,” because his was a bird brain. But, of course, Alex did do such things. I knew that Alex was proving a profound truth: brains may look different, and there may be a spectrum of ability that is determined by anatomical details, but brains and intelligence are a universally shared trait in nature—the capacity varies, but the building blocks are the same.
By the turn of the millennium, my argument was beginning to gain ground. It wasn’t just my work with Alex but others’ work, too. Animals were being granted a greater degree of intelligence than had been previously allowed. One sign of this was that I was asked to co-chair a symposium at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called “Avian Cognition: When Being Called ‘Bird Brain’ Is a Compliment.” The preamble read as follows: “This symposium demonstrates that many avian species, despite brain architectures that lack much cortical structure and evolutionary histories and that differ so greatly from those of humans, equal and sometimes surpass humans with respect to various cognitive tasks.” Even five years earlier, such a symposium would have been a difficult sell. That was progress. Jarvis’s paper three years later effectively said that bird and mammalian brains are not so very structurally different after all. More progress.
When Patrick and I submitted our grant proposal to the National Science Foundation in July 2006, we were expecting that, in some respects at least, Alex would see our world as we do. We didn’t wait to hear whether we would be funded before we embarked on some preliminary work. We chose a well-known illusion as the first test. You have probably seen it in psychology textbooks and popular articles: two parallel lines of equal length, both with arrows at the ends, one with the arrows pointing out, the other with the arrows pointing in. Despite being the same length, the line with the arrows pointing in looks longer to human eyes. That’s the illusion. We had to modify the test a little so as to use Alex’s unique abilities; we varied the color of the two lines, keeping the arrows black. We then asked, “What color bigger/smaller?” Right away, and repeatedly, Alex selected the one that you or I would choose. He did see the world as we do, at least with this illusion. That was a very promising step.
By June 2007, Patrick and I were pretty sure that we would get our grant, and by the end of August we learned that it would start on September 1, a Saturday. We would have money for a year. The following Monday we threw a party to celebrate, on the seventh floor of Harvard’s William James Hall. I was especially happy, and relieved to see my financial woes lessen.
Alex was a little subdued that week, though nothing out of the ordinary. The birds had had some kind of infection the previous month, but they were now fine. The vet had given them all a clean bill of health. On the afternoon of Wednesday the fifth, Adena Schachner joined me and Alex in the lab. She is a graduate student in the psychology department at Harvard, researching the origins of musical abilities. We thought it would be interesting to do some work with Alex. That evening, we wanted to see what types of music engaged him. Adena played some eighties disco, and Alex had a good time, bobbing his head in time with the beat. Adena and I danced to some of the songs while Alex bobbed along with us. Next time, we promised ourselves, we would get more serious about the music work.
The following day, Thursday the sixth, Alex wasn’t much interested in working on phonemes with two of the students during the morning session. “Alex very uncooperative in the task. Turned around,” they wrote in Alex’s work log. By midafternoon he was much more engaged, this time with a simple task of correctly selecting a colored cup, underneath which was a nut.
At six forty-five the supplemental lights went on, as usual, a signal that we had a few minutes left to clean up. Then the main lights went off, and it was time to put the birds in their cages: Wart first, then Alex, then the always reluctant Griffin.
“You be good. I love you,” Alex said to me.
“I love you, too,” I replied.
“You’ll be in tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll be in tomorrow.”