Singers pay the price and take the risk because it’s in our code. But in nature, we’re rare. Sure, a dog can learn to recognize some words, maybe croon a reply. But only vocal learners, as Jarvis calls us, truly learn to sing. We announce our presence, defend our territory. But mostly, we’re singing for love.
So the science of vocal learning wears the sheen of romance. But behind the curtain, the mechanics get murky. You can’t pick the locks of genetics and neurobiology without meticulous, mind-bending work. And that’s where Erich Jarvis thrives.
Over the course of two decades, Jarvis, with colleagues and students, has used tools such as molecular mapping to study the circuits that fire in the brain as a bird hears a tune, recreates the pattern, pulses signals to its brainstem, and jolts its feathered body into song. The goal of this work is bodacious enough for Houdini: Jarvis plans to engineer, in the brain of a non-learning species, the circuits of vocal learning. He expects to try this first in a mouse or a chicken, and work his way up to a non-human primate someday.