The origins of vocal learning: New sounds, new circuits, new cells

Brain Lang. 2010 Oct;115(1):3-17. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2010.05.002.


We do not know how vocal learning came to be, but it is such a salient trait in human evolution that many have tried to imagine it. In primates this is difficult because we are the only species known to possess this skill. Songbirds provide a richer and independent set of data. I use comparative data and ask broad questions: How does vocal learning emerge during ontogeny? In what contexts? What are its benefits? How did it evolve from unlearned vocal signals? How was brain anatomy altered to enable vocal learning? What is the relation of vocal learning to adult neurogenesis? No one has described yet a circuit or set of circuits that can master vocal learning, but this knowledge may soon be within reach. Moreover, as we uncover how birds encode their learned song, we may also come closer to understanding how we encode our thoughts.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*