Scientists have translated a bird’s brain waves into its song

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Imagine being able to watch musical notes fly through the air while your favorite relaxing song plays softly in the breeze. In a sense, scientists are one step closer to being able to do something like this with actual bird songs: they can now recreate a bird’s song just by reading its brain activity. Now they can head to experiments that would read neural activity related to a bird’s song in real time.

Why are scientists doing this? As Timothy Gentner, professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), explained in a press release, bird brains are similar enough to human brains that their research may help those with the disease. diseases that affect their ability to communicate.

“We’re leveraging 40 years of bird research to build a voice prosthesis for humans – a device that wouldn’t just convert a person’s brain signals into a rudimentary set of whole words, but give them the ability to do any sound, and therefore any word, they can imagine, freeing them to communicate whatever they wish, “Gentner said in his statement.

UCSD has provided Salon with a link to a sound clip in which you can hear a recording of the song of a zebra finch, followed by the biomechanical reproduction of the same song based on brain signals from a zebra finch.

In their article, the authors point out that bird songs have long been a mine of information about communication.

“Birdsong shares a number of unique similarities with human speech, and his study provided general insight into the multiple mechanisms and circuits behind the learning, execution and maintenance of vocal motor skills,” the authors explain. “Additionally, the biomechanics of song production are similar to that of humans and some non-human primates.”

Gentner and Vikash Gilja, another co-author of the article, told Salon that although the last common ancestor between birds and humans lived over 300 million years ago, our brains have retained many ‘important similarities.

“Neurons, the building blocks of the brain in humans, birds, and almost every other creature with a spine, are remarkably similar,” Gentner and Gilja told Salon via email. “The crux of the matter in both species is the same: how do we translate patterns of neuronal activity into patterns of sound? But what makes birdsong a perfect candidate for this kind of work is its functional similarity to human speech.

And while some birds, like some species of parrots, can vocalize and communicate in complex ways so that they appear to be aware of human language, birds lack the intellectual capacity for language – at least not the same. way that we.

“Language allows the creation of infinite meanings from a finite set of sounds and words,” explained Gentner and Gilja. Birdsong, as well as all other non-human communication signals, seem to lack this ability. The deeper relationships between music, language, and the ‘complexity’ of an acoustic signal are topics of ongoing research and development. artistic expression. “

Yet bird vocalizations are still extremely complex. One study found that Eurasian jackdaws had specific calls that they used to warn about humans they didn’t like, meaning they could not only identify specific individuals, but also assign sounds to refer to them. Toshitaka Suzuki and his colleagues at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan learned from observing Japanese breasts that they organize their calls in a specific order, much like humans use syntax to construct sentences.

“The syntax was believed to have evolved in a unique way in humans, but our study shows that it also evolved in a wild bird,” Suzuki told BBC Earth. “I believe that many basic characteristics of language ability are shared between humans and non-human animals, including birds.”


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Mankind has long had a curious relationship with the song of birds, which seems to affect human rhythms and psyche invisibly. Scientists have found that people find bird songs reassuring because, thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew birds sang because they felt safe – and that made it more likely that we were. also safe. Additionally, bird songs are believed to serve as a natural wake-up call for humans, telling our inner uncivilized animal that the day is upon us and that we have work to do. The relationship between wild birds and humans is reflective: During the COVID-19 pandemic, birds became louder and more musical as human-made noise pollution from automobiles, mundane urban machinery and herds of people themselves began to calm down.

“This is certainly an interesting observation which probably indicates the behavioral flexibility of songbirds to adapt to changes in their / our acoustic environments, and how much we can learn about the intricacies of the world around us if we simply take a time to stop and listen, ”said Gentner and Gilja.


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