Songbirds, Both Human and Avian, in Spotlight at Café Science

March 19, 2013Bookmark and Share

Every animal has its own specializations—hawks can spot their prey a mile away. Human beings, among other things, have the rare capacity to appreciate language and music.

Associate Psychology Professor Sarah Woolley and singer Jill Sobule at an evening of song and science (Image credit: Susan Cook)
Associate Psychology Professor Sarah Woolley and singer Jill Sobule at an evening of song and science
Image credit: Susan Cook

That specialty was on display last month, when Sarah Woolley, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology, recruited her friend, singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, to join her for an evening of science and singing at Craft’s private dining room.

The idea was for the scientist to talk about her own work studying vocal communication and auditory perception—a question Woolley has pursued over her almost seven years at Columbia by studying the development of music in songbirds.

But she also knew that Sobule, a folk-rock artist whose songs have reached the Top 40 and who has played Carnegie Hall, was far better equipped to help audience members experience the pleasurable flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine that is often released in the brain when we hear tunes we like.

“Music evokes emotion in us automatically because the auditory system connects to the emotional centers of the brain,” Woolley told a crowd of about 50 Columbia alumni and faculty. “When you add lyrics, you tap into the language centers of the brain. So you’re working three systems—interacting with each other—when you are hearing a song.”

The Café Science event, titled “Singing in the Brain,” was sponsored by the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain and Behavior Institute. It was originally scheduled for last October’s series of Brain Month events, but was delayed by Hurricane Sandy.

Listen to WNYC's radio story about "Singing in the Brain."

No other animal besides humans, birds and whales are capable of learning the complex vocalizations necessary to sing a song. But since whales are too large to fit in a lab, and current technology is unable to study humans at the level of single neurons, Woolley has looked toward finches for insights.

Understanding how music works in the brain, she said, could have implications for treating human disease. Many autistic children and stroke victims have damage to areas on the left side of the brain that play a major role in language processing. But music therapy—which seems to activate others areas of the brain on the right side—has been shown to help autistic children learn language by singing it, and to help stroke victims regain the ability to speak, she noted.

Over the course of an hour, Woolley and Sobule took turns in the spotlight, with Woolley’s explanations on the stages of neural development in finches alternating with musical numbers from Sobule, who chose songs from her vast repertoire to dramatize a bird’s life cycle and help relate it to human experience.

Watch the video to learn more about Prof. Sarah Woolley's research on songbirds. (3:16)

The lively segment at the café was recorded by WNYC public radio, and Woolley can be heard backing up Sobule with pitch-perfect examples of warbling she has learned from her songbirds. Male finches have specialized brain regions devoted to the production of song, which they learn to sing to attract potential mates. Female finches don’t sing but rather listen and analyze male songs for clues to the underlying neural health of their potential mates. Healthy males exhibit good motor control, high volume, complex syllables and long phrases, which raise the estrogen levels of female finches and can lead to successful coupling, Woolley said.

Like finches, many human males sing to attract mates, noted Sobule, who burst into a spirited blues progression on her guitar and belted out a song with the words: “I got to get me some, some of your love” and “I’m about to burst, the endocrines are angry and it’s getting worse.”

Sobule highlighted the female experience of choosing a mate with a song that went: “Pass me the pipe and tell me another lie. Just lay here by my side, my eyes are closed, my heart is open.”

Baby songbirds—like human infants—are intuitively drawn to the sound of their own species, but the male birds fix their attention on their fathers, imprinting for the rest of their lives the sounds they will someday replicate.

Listen to another Jill Sobule song from the Café Science performance.

When they are older, male birds start to produce their own vocalizations, beginning with a babbling akin to that of human infants. Eventually, this baby bird talk will progress into proto-singing, then more structured, louder songs, and finally a male bird will produce his father’s song, adding small variations to make it his own. In adolescence, testosterone fixes the melody in place.

Over the course of learning to sing, noted Woolley, “There’s a lot of arduousness and a lot of things can go wrong.”

This prompted another song from Sobule about “being a miserable teen,” during which she enlisted the help of the audience in the chorus and crooned about finding “someone, someday to love.”

—Story by Adam Piore
—Video by Columbia News Video Team