Irene M. Pepperberg

Research Associate, Harvard University, Department of Psychology

Irene M. Pepperberg

Title: “Perceptual Awareness in the Grey Parrot.”
Abstract: Arguments for human consciousness usually derive from introspective reports; we lack such reports for nonhumans. Not being able to derive data to posit human-like consciousness, I argue that nonhumans have an awareness distinct from full consciousness. I propose that this awareness is required for complex tasks and is a form of higher order cognition, sensu Delacour (1997), who posits consciousness as a “…certain style of cognition, characterized by a particular integration of different processes…” For some nonhumans, this awareness involves the capacity not only to process perceived data, but also to chose, from among various possible sets of rules that have been acquired or taught, the set that appropriately governs the current processing of that data (Pepperberg 1999). Simple associative processes probably require only basic perception. In contrast, complex comparative psychology tasks (e.g., transfer, hierarchical category formation) require integrating perception, centralized monitoring, and behavioral control; for some tasks, however, even this information-processing account cannot explain observed data. I will discuss one of several studies that provide evidence not for nonhuman consciousness equivalent to that of humans, but possibly for some of its elements, that on a Grey parrot’s derivation of a zero-like concept.

Bio: Irene Pepperberg received her SB from MIT (1969) and MA (1971) and Ph.D. (1976) from Harvard.  She is currently a Research Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. She has been  an Adjunct Associate Professor at Brandeis University’s Psychology Department, and a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Media Lab, later accepting a research scientist position there, leaving a tenured professorship at the University of Arizona. She has been a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, won a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, was an alternate for the Cattell Award for Psychology, won the 2000 Selby Fellowship (Australian Academy of Sciences), won the 2005 Frank Beach Award for best paper in comparative psychology, was nominated for the 2000 Weizmann, L’Oreal, and Grawemeyer Awards, the 2001 Quest Award (Animal Behavior Society), and was renominated for the 2001 L’Oreal Award. She has also received fellowships from the Harry Frank Guggenheim and Whitehall Foundations, and numerous grants from the National Science Foundation. Her book, The Alex Studies, describing over 20 years of peer-reviewed experiments on Grey parrots, received favorable mention from publications as diverse as the New York Times and Science. Her memoir, Alex & Me, was a New York Times bestseller. She has presented her findings nationally and internationally at universities and scientific congresses, often as a keynote or plenary speaker, and has published numerous journal articles, reviews, and book chapters. She is a fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the American Ornithologists’ Union, AAAS, the Eastern and Midwest Psychological Associations, and presently serves as consulting editor for three journals and as associate editor for The Journal of Comparative Psychology. She is president of The Alex Foundation, has been a board member of Thinking Animals and currently serves as a board member of the Eastern Psychological Association.

Animal Consciousness: Evidence and Implications

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