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Selectivity, Memory and Lateralization for Vocal Communication Signals in Songbirds

Dr. David Vicario

Thursday, December 01, 2011, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Rutgers University, Department of Psychology

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Left hemispheric "dominance" for processing speech signals is an accepted principle in cognitive neuroscience, but its mechanism is not fully understood and some recent imaging studies suggest that it may be an oversimplification. Songbirds provide a model system for studying hemispheric differences because they learn their vocal communication signals through a process of imitation with many parallels to human speech acquisition. Brain structures that serve the production and perception of these signals have been identified, and, notably, show lateral differences in both motor and sensory function. In one auditory area that is specialized for discriminating and remembering the vocalizations of conspecifics, we have found that early experience with complex sounds is required for normal development of lateralized responses. This experience-dependent lateralization can be thought of as a set of acquired (memory-based) perceptual filters for certain classes of sounds that show greater selectivity in one hemisphere, and may be comparable to the left-side bias for discriminating native language phonemes in humans. Current studies in which adult birds are exposed to entirely unfamiliar sounds (the songs of another species) suggest that the two hemispheres may play different roles in the dynamic updating of these filters to efficiently encode a novel class of stimuli.

Dr. David Vicario