Scientists studying how songbirds stay on key have developed a statistical explanation for why some things are harder for the brain to learn than others.
"We've built the first mathematical model that uses a bird's previous sensorimotor experience to predict its ability to learn," says Emory biologist Samuel Sober. "We hope it will help us understand the math of learning in other species, including humans."
Sober conducted the research with physiologist Michael Brainard of the University of California, San Francisco.
Their results, showing that adult birds correct small errors in their songs more rapidly and robustly than large errors, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Sober's lab uses Bengalese finches as a model for researching the mechanisms of how the brain learns to correct vocal mistakes.
Just like humans, baby birds learn to vocalize by listening to adults. Days after hatching, Bengalese finches start imitating the sounds of adults. "At first, their song is extremely variable and disorganized," Sober says. "It's baby talk, basically."
The young finches keep practicing, listening to their own sounds and fixing any mistakes that occur, until eventually they can sing like their elders.
Young birds, and young humans, make a lot of big mistakes as they learn to vocalize. As birds and humans get older, the variability of mistakes shrinks. One theory contends that adult brains tend to screen out big mistakes and pay more attention to smaller ones.
"To correct any mistake, the brain has to rely on the senses," Sober explains. "The problem is, the senses are unreliable. If there is noise in the environment, for example, the brain may think it misheard and ignore the sensory experience."
The link between variability and learning may explain why youngsters tend to learn faster and why adults are more resistant to change.
"Whether you are an opera singer or a bird, there is always variability in your sounds," Sober says. "When the brain receives an error in pitch, it seems to use this very simple and elegant strategy of evaluating the probability of whether the error was just extraneous 'noise,' a problem reading the signal, or an actual mistake in the vocalization."
The researchers wanted to quantify the relationship between the size of a vocal error, and the probability of the brain making a sensorimotor correction.
The experiments were conducted on adult Bengalese finches outfitted with light-weight, miniature headphones. As a bird sang into a microphone, the researchers used sound-processing equipment to trick the bird into thinking it was making vocal mistakes, by changing the bird's pitch and altering the way the bird heard itself, in real-time.
"When we made small pitch shifts, the birds learned really well and corrected their errors rapidly," Sober says. "As we made the pitch shifts bigger, the birds learned less well, until at a certain pitch, they stopped learning."
The researchers used the data to develop a statistical model for the size of a vocal error and whether a bird learns, including the cut-off point for learning from sensorimotor mistakes. They are now developing additional experiments to test and refine the model.
"We hope that our mathematical framework for how songbirds learn to sing could help in the development of human behavioral therapies for vocal rehabilitation, as well as increase our general understanding of how the brain learns," Sober says.
Emory University: http://www.emory.edu
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
From flying frogs to deep-sea squid, meet some of the other nosferatu of the animal kingdom
After 50 years of cutting-edge seafloor exploration, the Alvin submersible—renegade deep-sea explorer for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute—just got a long-deserved makeover. Alvin is the United States’ only deep-diving manned submersible used for science, so its upgrades will have a serious impact on the discoveries we can pull off in the deep.
Animals took so long to evolve and thrive on Earth because of incredibly low levels of oxygen during a period more than a billion years ago, scientists say.
By combining compounds in just the right mixture, researchers have worked out how to produce the olfactory equivalent of white noise
The pain that scratching causes soothes an itch – but only for a second. As soon as the brain's response to that pain kicks it, it ramps up the itch further
A man's lifelong fear of spiders vanished overnight with the removal of a part of his brain – it gives an insight into where and how our fears are stored
Scientists have been puzzling for years over why some people survive Ebola while many others perish. A new study provides strong evidence that individual genetic differences play a major role in whether people die from the disease.
Zookeepers are keeping an eye on the 120-pound giraffe calf, making sure he's getting all the nutrition he needs. He could make his first appearance in the feeding habitat as soon as next week.
Biologists are reporting signs of a possible zombie apocalypse. Well, at least for the honeybee population. A parasite that has been turning bees on the West Coast into zombie-like creatures has started infecting bees in the East, and biologists are still puzzled as to how it all works.
An innate ability some people have to manipulate their vocal frequency could be the key to sounding charismatic, according to new research.