‘Muting’ your singing partner could be the reason duets work
Singing duos require a certain level of musical chemistry, and a recent study has confirmed it.
By analysing the brain patterns of Ecuadorian plain-tailed wrens as they sang, the researchers found that each singer mutes the song-making areas of their partner’s brain as they take turns singing.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saw researchers studying the brain activity of male and female wrens singing individually and in pairs.
They said the motor circuits used for singing are temporarily inhibited in the listening partner, which helps connect the pair’s brains and coordinate turn-taking so it sounds like only one bird is singing.
Using our senses to take turns
The study has also provided a new insight into how humans and other cooperative animals use sensory cues to coordinate with each other.
Eric Fortune, co-author of the study and neurobiologist at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Department of Biological Sciences, said that timing is everything for these sorts of performances.
“What these wrens have shown us is that for any good collaboration, partners need to become ‘one’ through sensory linkages,” he said. “The take-home message is that when we are cooperating well … we become a single entity with our partners.”
“Think of these birds like jazz singers,” said corresponding author and associate professor of biology at Scripps College Melissa Coleman. “Duetting wrens have a rough song structure planned before they sing, but as the song evolves, they must rapidly coordinate by receiving constant input from their counterpart.”
Though the team expected the birds would have specialised neurons to coordinate this turn-taking, they were surprised to discover that listening to their partner is what prevents them from singing over the top.
When looking at the brain activity of birds as they sang, the neurons responsible for learning and making music would rapidly fire. But when listening to their partner, their neurons became much less active.
“You can think of inhibition as acting like a trampoline,” Fortune explained. “When the birds hear their partner, the neurons are inhibited, but just like rebounding off a trampoline, the release from that inhibition causes them to swiftly respond when it’s their time to sing.”
What this means for humans
Though we might not experience the same kinds of inhibition as the plain-tailed wren, poor internet connections during video conferencing or the loss of reception during a phone call affect the sensory information we use to coordinate our conversations with other people and avoid interrupting, speaking over someone, and other conversational pitfalls.
“I think this study is important for understanding how we interact with the world whenever we are trying to produce a single behaviour as two performers,” Coleman said.
“We are wired for cooperation, the same way as these jazz singing wrens.”
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