By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016
nytimes.com | Jan. 28, 2016
Though the avian cerebrum possesses only the tiniest nub of the structures associated with mammalian intelligence, recent studies of crows and parrots have revealed that birds think and learn using an entirely different part of their brains, a kind of avian neocortex known as the medio-rostral neostriatum/hyperstriatum ventrale. In both parrots and crows, in fact, the ratio of brain to body size is similar to that of the higher primates, an encephalization quotient that yields in both species not only the usual indications of cognitive sophistication like problem-solving and tool use but also two aspects of intelligence long thought to be exclusively human: episodic memory and theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states, like intention, desire and awareness, to yourself and to others.
Nature, in other words, in a stunning example of parallel or convergent evolution, found an entirely other and far earlier path to complex cognition: an alien intelligence that not only links directly back to minds we’ve long believed to be forever lost to us, like the dinosaurs’, but that can also be wounded, under duress, in the same ways our minds can. In one recent psychiatric study conducted at Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services, a parrot sanctuary and rehabilitation facility in Minnesota, a captive-bred male umbrella cockatoo who had been ‘‘exposed to multiple caregivers who were themselves highly unstable (e.g. domestic violence, substance abuse . . . addiction)’’ was given a diagnosis of complex PTSD. ‘‘When examined through the lens of complex PTSD,’’ Dr. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist and an author of the study, wrote, ‘‘the symptoms of many caged parrots are almost indistinguishable from those of human P.O.W.s and concentration-camp survivors.’’ She added that severely traumatized cockatoos ‘‘commonly exhibit rapid pacing in cage, distress calls, screams, self-mutilation, aggression in response to . . . physical contact, nightmares . . . insomnia.’’
Veterans, of course, share similar psychological scarring, but whenever I asked any of them how it is that the parrots succeed in connecting where human therapists and fellow group-therapy members can’t, the answer seemed to lie precisely in the fact that parrots are alien intelligences: parallel, analogously wounded minds that know and feel pain deeply and yet at a level liberatingly beyond the prescriptive confines of human language and prejudices.
‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.’’
One afternoon at the sanctuary, I went up the hill to the V.A. hospital to talk with Leslie Martin. A clinical social worker and a director at the center’s trauma-recovery services, she often recommends parrot therapy for patients, including those who are ‘‘treatment resistant,’’ like Lilly Love. I asked Martin if the primordial nature of the parrot’s intelligence might have a particular effect on certain veterans. ‘‘Everyone knows these animals are very sensitive, like children,’’ she said. ‘‘The pure, primitive nature of their feelings, their emotions, activates your primitive brain. And then when they speak to you, it’s a real high.’’
Previous studies have shown that effective trauma therapies can help the brain construct neuronal bypasses around the scarred areas of a traumatized brain. ‘‘They’re only just starting to do research on this now, but there are phenomena that are operating in the prefrontal cortex,’’ Martin said. ‘‘There are some physiological and chemical changes happening that are real, that are measurable.’’ Lindner says she would like to one day enlist researchers to study the brain science behind the efficacy of parrot therapy and whether it is the parrots themselves that are helping the veterans or whether there are other variables at work. For now, however, she uses as her measure the nearby veterans’ garden just across from Serenity Park. For years, afflicted veterans were brought to work in the garden as a way of treating their trauma, essentially working in the same tranquil setting as the veterans at Serenity Park, the one obvious difference, of course, being the parrots. Lindner said she thinks that, using conventional measures of improvement for veterans suffering trauma — the ability to stay clean and sober; keeping up with their case-manager appointments; reuniting with family; finding gainful employment, and so on — the veterans who have been working with the parrots are doing better than those who spend time working at the garden.
‘‘There’s definitely something different going on at this place,’’ Lindner said. ‘‘We know that what’s preserved across species, all vertebrates truthfully, is the ability to feel compassion. As for birds and humans, we both have sympathetic nervous responses. We react the same way to trauma on the physiological level and in terms of the reparative nature of compassion and empathy. That’s what is doing the healing. That’s what is bringing the broken halves together. We don’t know what the actual healing factor is, but I believe that it has to do with mental mirroring. That the parrots get what the veterans are going through and, of course, the veterans get them, too, because, hey, they are all pretty much traumatized birds around here.’’