Birds, Music and the Brain

Next month, President Obama is expected to announce details about dedicating resources to a massive study of the brain. That’s music to the ears of neuroscientists at Columbia University, where some of the research will be centered.

One researcher there, Sarah Woolley, studies the parallels between the brains of humans and songbirds – specifically, in their use of language or song. The hope is that the research might one day yield important information about developmental diseases.

Woolley recently recruited her friend, musician Jill Sobule, for a musical lecture on birds, music and the brain. The talk was part of Columbia University’s Café Columbia series – casual conversations about the arts and sciences.

This one took place at a restaurant, Craft, on East 19th Street. The two sat side by side at the front of a large dining room before an audience comprised mostly of academics and alumni. They began the talk with an introduction to Woolley’s research, and led the audience on a musical journey through the life cycle of a baby bird – from his birth, through adolescence, to his use of song to attract a mate. To listen to one of their musical interludes, click on the audio link below.


(Musician Jill Sobule and Dr. Woolley. Photo by Susan Cook)                                                    

Sobule drew from her existing catalog of music, and added some minor improvisations, to help illustrate and illuminate Woolley’s points. The lecture got plenty of laughs from a rapt audience – especially when Sobule asked Woolley to join in by singing a finch solo. But it also cleverly brought up the more salient points of neurological research into bird’s brains.

(Two male zebra finches. Photo by Eileen Barroso)

At one point, Woolley explained how certain finches may repeat a beeping sound, in rapid sequence. “There’s your animal model for stuttering,” she explained. “If we could figure out why the bird gets stuck on that syllable, we might be able to figure out, what is going on in people when they get stuck on a word?”

“We want the community to understand why it’s important to study the brain, and not study disease, but to study other animals,” Woolley said. “To study the brilliance of other animals … so that they can tell us how their brains do it, so that we can then make hypotheses about how the human brain does it.”  

The method of delivering that message seemed to work well for the audience. Jean Golden, a music-lover and former psychoanalyst, said she’s definitely interested in how the research could apply to people with brain trauma, or other developmental issues.

(Sarah Woolley with the finches in her lab at Columbia University. Photo by Eileen Barroso.)

“If they can find a way to use music or any of the other arts to help them in a therapeutic way, I think that’s fabulous,” Golden said.

Another member of the audience, Robert Buxton, agreed. He said there’s still a lot to learn about the brain.

“Brain disorder research is where cancer was probably 15 years ago, cancer oncology,” he said. “And so it’s very important that we get behind efforts to understand all the afflictions of the brain.”

That’s exactly what Woolley wants to hear. And with major institutions like Columbia and New York University building up their brain research, Woolley predicts New York will become “the world’s center of neuroscience” within three to four years. And in the meantime, she and Sobule are thinking about ways to keep their musical collaboration going.

Watch a video of Sarah Woolley describing her research. Video courtesy Columbia University