How Finches Learn Songs: Genetics Versus Experience

finchesBird songs—we hear them every day as we move from one place to another in our busy lives. Birds use these songs to communicate with each other about everything from the location of food to finding a mate. But how do birds actually learn their songs and what can that teach us about our own learning abilities?

This was a question recently addressed by two scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. David Mets, Ph.D and Michael Brainard, Ph.D recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documenting their study of how genetics and experience influence learning in finches. “Our understanding of how experience and genetics interact to shape learned behaviors remains scant,” says the scientists, which has broad implications for human learning as well.

But why use birds to study this phenomenon? The researches note that birds are an excellent model for two reasons. First, the neural networks that control bird song in finch brains has been extensively studied and is well understood. Second, it is well known that the tempo of bird songs is highly dependent on genetics and can thus be predicted. This means that bird song is a controlled system with easily manipulated variables for experimentation.

To understand how genetics and experience affected their bird models, Mets and Brainard set up two groups of birds. In the first group, young finches were exposed to a “synthetic” bird song played by a computer. In the second group, the finches were taught by a live bird. The researchers expected that the live bird would be a much better tutor than the computer. In both cases, the young birds successfully learned their songs, but with a couple of important differences.

The key finding of this study was that the young birds’ genetic predisposition mattered significantly more when taught by the computer than by the live bird. This suggests that a rich learning environment is sufficient to overcome even strong genetic disposition towards a certain song tempo. Even though the birds’ genetics put certain constraints on what the birds could learn, it was the learning experience itself that actually affected the end song.

Like in bird songs, “individual differences for many complex human [traits] such as cognitive abilities and personality depend on both genetics and experience.” While it is very hard to study the interplay of the two in human learning, the bird study presented here is a big step towards making that leap. Better understanding of how genetics and experience affect learning could change the way we educate children in school or train adults for professional careers. There is still much to be learned, but the implications could change the way we think about learning.

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