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Bird Song in Winter – Learning the Chorus

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Brain science isn’t just about how the human brain processes information, and at LearnBIG we draw upon all sorts of interesting research.

Ever wake up to the sound of birds singing outside your window? It can be a lovely way to awaken (depending on the levels of squawking involved), but it gives rise to an important question: how and why do birds learn how to sing those melodies?

Researchers at Cornell University have just given us a peek into the way one particular bird–the zebra finch–processes auditory information to learn their songs. It all starts with a baby zebra finch hearing a tutor song from another bird, usually its father. After a months-long process of trial and error, young zebra finches will end up stumbling upon an approximation of the song they heard earlier in their life.

But how does this happen? After all, there’s no quantifiable good-or-bad difference between musical notes.The reason birds sing in tune is because of neurochemical feedback. Essentially, repeating the pattern they heard early on in life makes the birds feel good.

We’ve long known that the brain operates a reward-based circuitry that reinforces behaviors that are crucial to staying alive, like eating and sleeping. But what hasn’t been clear is why the brain has an interest in “getting things right”. If you’ve ever had a hobby, you’re familiar with the feeling of accomplishment you get when you nail a new skill or finally perfect a technique. These pleasant and often exciting reactions are called performance rewards, and they’re what drive birds to practice until their songs are perfect.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the experiment: Researchers used an incredibly fast software that was able to take a bird’s song, distort a portion of it, and play it back to the bird in almost real time–so the birds believed they had hit an incorrect note. The researchers then measured the release of dopamine, the brain’s primary reward chemical, triggered by the birds singing correctly, and getting the note wrong. The findings demonstrated that birds learn their songs through the same dopamine-driven reward and motivation system that perpetuates those life-or-death behaviors like sleep and eating.

I know, at this point you’re probably thinking: “But what does this have to do with e-learning?”. Well, most e-learning courses just don’t provide enough opportunities for learners to activate their brains’ performance rewards. It’s all well and good to sit back, watch a few videos, and hope to retain some information–but without the chance to engage with the material and get it right (or wrong) in the moment, you don’t receive the dopamine release that makes things stick. In other words, it turns out that neurofeedback-based learning isn’t just for the birds.