Scientists can now teach birds to sing new songs by implanting false memories

Birdsong is beautiful, but many of our feathered friends have a limited repertoire. This could be about to change thanks to a breakthrough in science.

Nov 7, 2019 |
3 min read

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Everybody loves the sound of birdsong. It’s a reminder that a new day has dawned and brought new opportunities with it.

Having said that, it’s OK to admit – hearing the same tunes chirped over and over can become wearisome. You’re not alone if you have ever wished for a little variety in your morning wake-up call.

Perhaps this what inspired scientists to implant false memories of new songs into the brains of birds. The science behind the concept sounds like the blockbuster movie Inception brought to life. It’s fascinating – if not a little scary.

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How did scientists implant memories of new songs in the minds of birds?

The technique used is called optogenetics. In a nutshell, optogenetics is the process of using light to stimulate brain neurons. Particular neurons are activated as long as a light is shone directly on them. This can enhance memory and understanding.

The scientists applied this to birdsong by playing tunes to young birds. Ordinarily, baby birds learn songs from their parents and other adults. Just like it takes a human 10,000 hours to become an expert musician, baby birds repeat what they hear time and again until they perfect it.

In this case of this study, young birds were played songs they had never heard before. While the optogenetic light was shone upon these birds, they memorized and imitated the melodies.

These two steps – remembering and copying – are critical to any learning behavior. These birds are breaking away from millennia of ingrained behavior by imitating songs that were unique to them.

The birds were only taught basic song structures and lengths. Also, it should be noted that the subjects were played existing birdsongs that were unfamiliar to them personally. It’s not as though a laboratory engineer booted up Spotify and taught a whole new pop culture songbook. All the same, it’s a step forward in our understanding of memory and learning.

Could this research apply to humans?

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We’re a long way from this research changing the lives of humans. Our brains are considerably larger and more complex than that of a common garden bird. That leaves optogenetics with a significantly tougher task to make a difference.

However, there is potential for advances in human learning based on these experiments. The mind of a human child works in a similar way to that of a baby bird. We learn through listening and imitation.

If our parents speak with a strong regional accent, we will too. If an adult around us uses a particular phrase or word frequently, it will seep into our own vocabulary. Even physical attributes, such as the way that we walk and our body posture, are often learned.

The big breakthrough of this research is confirmation that particular parts of the brain can be reached to forge new memories. With more time and research, this could be transferred to humans.

Don’t panic – intentions behind this are benevolent. We are not talking about mind control or anything like it. The techniques may help speech development, though. Individuals that struggle to articulate themselves may be able to discover new words rapidly.

This research could also change the way that new languages are learned. It’s commonly stated that adults find it trickier to learn a new language than children. By activating brain neurons, we may all be able to tap into a child-like sponge brain that absorbs new information.

If optogenetics can help us learn, can they also make us forget?

No. The technique of optogenetics is essentially bolstering and boosting human memory. Firing up and activating neurons makes it easier to retain information at a faster rate. It is not impacting the make-up of our brain or memory in any way.

This could be a blow to combat veterans with PTSD or anybody else with traumatic memories they would be happy to part with. This study may open the door to new coping techniques, however.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is hugely popular with many therapists. It’s used to aid anybody with a mental health concern, whether that’s the PTSD as mentioned above, OCD, or anything else on the DSM spectrum.

Using optogenetics, CBT can be learned and ingrained into a daily routine much faster. This could aid recovery times, and lead to a brighter future for anybody struggling with a daily routine.

As discussed, we’re a long way from mastering this technique in humans. The first step has been taken, though, and it’s an important one. Listen carefully to the birds in the sky tomorrow morning. If you’re unfamiliar with their ditty of choice, you are gaining a glimpse into the future.

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