Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

‘Seeing voices’: the role of multimodal cues in vocal learning

Can birds - like people- ‘see’ voices and learn how to sing by listening and watching?

2016  -   2018
Katharina Riebel
Human Frontier Science Program Human Frontier Science Program

Dr. Wouter Halfwerk, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Prof. Constance Scharff, Freie Universität Berlin

Songbirds, and zebra finches in particular, are the prevalent animal model for molecular, neural and developmental aspects of human speech: Songbirds, like humans, learn many of the sounds they use for communication from conspecifics early in life. Both use comparable functional brain circuits to accomplish this complex task. In both cases, visual cues, such as moving lips in speech, or moving beaks in birdsong are an essential part of sound production.

Vocal learning is thought to be enhanced when sound and sight are available. But why should this be so? Does simultaneous hearing and seeing improve learning because beak movements are learned together with the sound of song? And if so, how is the brain integrating multimodal information during development? We will investigate these questions by first developing a robot bird that can teach young birds to sing and to then compare learning success among groups exposed to different types of song tutoring. If auditory-visual song integration during learning is important, quality of learning should covary with different levels of audiovisual stimulation.

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