From bird songs to frog ribbits, animals engage in countless forms of vocalization. However, no other species in the animal kingdom matches humans in complexity of language. The versatility of human speech allows us to discuss anything from what we ate for breakfast to the nature of the universe, and our ability to communicate is essential in all aspects of our lives. Because of this, it is natural for neuroscientists to search for an evolutionary explanation showing us how our unique language capabilities came about. One potential answer to this complicated question lies in the gene FOXP2.Continue reading
It is no surprise that a child prefers its mother’s voice to those of strangers. Beginning in the womb, a fetus’s developing auditory pathways sense the sounds and vibrations of its mother. Soon after birth, a child can identify its mother’s voice and will work to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices. A 2014 study of preterm infants showed that playing a recording of the mother’s voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay. A mother’s voice can soothe a child in stressful situations, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone. Scientists have even traced the power of a mother’s voice to infants’ brains: a mother’s voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialized task of speech processing.
While it makes intuitive sense that a mother’s voice has special power over infants and toddlers, what happens as children grow up? Continue reading
In my last post, “Vocal Practice is for the Birds” examined one similarity between human and songbird procedural learning: the necessity for practice before performance. Zebra finches sing a series of introductory notes to prepare before beginning their mating song, much like we warm up before playing an instrument or before an athletic competition. This is but one of the many similarities found between human and songbird behaviors. In fact, scientists have been using songbirds to study many common behaviors, like spatial memory and social interactions in addition to procedural learning. Songbirds are the ideal model system for studying the neurogenetic basis of vocal learning due to the similarity of the neural structures underlying this relatively rare behavior.Continue reading