Posted in Science & Nature

Alex The Parrot

Alex (Avian Language EXperiment) was the name of an animal psychology experiment that ran for 30 years starting from 1977. The experiment was designed to see if birds could undertake complex problem solving and learn languages like primates. For this, Dr Irene Pepperberg bough an African grey parrot, named him Alex and started teaching him how to speak. Before Alex, scientists believed that animals needed a large enough brain like a primate to handle the complex problems related to language. But Alex proved otherwise.

Before Dr Pepperberg, scientists failed to establish any two-way communication with parrots. She used a new training technique called the model/rival technique, where two trainers act in front of the parrot to teach it things. The method is as follows. One trainer (the rival) shows the other trainer the desired student behaviour they want the parrot to learn. The other trainer then compliments the trainer and shows attention. The parrot sees that the behaviour gets the trainer’s attention and learns it to compete with the rival. This technique was extremely successful and Alex began picking up words at a very fast rate (technically it was more of a two-way communications code than “language”).

Once communication was possible, Dr Pepperberg taught Alex many different concepts. Over the course of his life, Alex learnt 150 words, how to differentiate between seven colours and five shapes and also understood the concept of numbers and sizes. If you showed Alex two objects, he could answer many questions regarding one object (thus showing that his response was not a conditioned one). For example, if you showed him a small blue key and a large green key, he could answer what colour the larger key was, or which one was the green key. Furthermore, if a plate full of objects of different colours and shapes was presented to him, he could correctly count how many green blocks (or any other shape or colour) there was among the objects. The important point here is that he could pick out just the green blocks, excluding green balls or blue blocks from his answers (showing he fully understood the question and could attribute more than one characteristic to one object). He knew how to express himself, such as saying “Wanna go back” when he was tired, and would give playful, incorrect answers when bored of the repetitious experiments. According to Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence equal to a dolphin, a great ape or a five year-old child. He also knew how to attain knowledge by asking questions, such as when he asked what colour he was to learn the word “grey”.

Alex, who told us so much about the intelligence of a parrot, unfortunately died in 2007. The night before he died, he said the following last words to Dr Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you”.

Posted in Life & Happiness

New Year’s Resolution

On the last day of the year, almost anyone is bound to make a few New Year’s resolutions. However, realistically it is rare for those resolutions to be kept, and instead forgotten within weeks. But according to Dr Richard Wiseman’s experiment, it was found that utilising other techniques instead of just keeping them to oneself was more effective in carrying out those resolutions. Here are ten methods to help keep one’s New Year’s resolution successful:

  1. Make one resolution only: Rather than making many false promises, it is better to concentrate your efforts into one.
  2. Tell someone to remind you: A resolution only in one’s mind is bound to be forgotten. Instead, tell a friend or a loved one to remind you, or write up a big sign or post a picture somewhere visible.
  3. Plan ahead: Making resolutions requires planning; instead of making an impromptu resolution on the night, think for a few days beforehand for a more effective plan.
  4. Be specific: Vague plans always fail. Instead of “I will quit smoking”, try something specific like “I will smoke one cigarette less for every two days”.
  5. Do not reuse old resolutions: Reusing resolutions will only bring regret and frustration from constant failure, so either make a fresh resolution or use a different approach, such as changing “I will get better grades” to “I will study more”.
  6. Set S.M.A.R.T goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based goals are significantly more effective and efficient. For example, if you are looking for a new job, rewrite your CV, set goals you can keep for every new week and apply for a job twice every week.
  7. Think positively: Rather than thinking of the repercussions of not making a resolution, think of the rewards of keeping the resolution.
  8. Carrot over stick: Think how your life will improve from the resolution. For instance, deciding to socialise more will bring more friends, more fun and more happiness into your life.
  9. Visualise: Seeing yourself carrying out the resolution and reaping the reward will help keep the resolution.
  10. Be Persistent: Forming habits take time, so do not blame yourself or give up when you slip up a few times. Instead, you must keep trying with perseverance and confidence.

Lastly, the research also found that women are worse at keeping resolutions compared to men (30% vs 37% respectively).