Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who's Got Rhythm?

Animals do!  People used to think that our own species might be unique in following a musical beat.  Wrong.

In my book, I cited a 20th century anecdote from author and animal lover Gerald Durrell:  "A hand-raised pigeon loved music and would snuggle close to the speaker of an old-fashioned record player. What’s more, the bird performed distinctive dances to marches and waltzes."  That would seem to indicate some sense of rhythm, along with possible intrinsic reinforcement value for moving in time to a beat.  I'm sure there must be many such anecdotes.  (Do share them if you know of any!)  In the end note accompanying Durrell's story, I mentioned a sulphur-crested cockatoo that appeared to be following the rhythm of rock music, made famous on a youtube video that went viral.  Researchers in the journal Current Biology concluded that indeed the bird was.

The next step:  Check it out with a mammalian species--and one that's not especially good at vocal flexibility in response to consequences.  In a recent issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Peter Cook and colleagues showed that Ronan the female sea lion could learn to bob her head to different rhythms just fine, even from complex music.  Thirty weekend training sessions was all it took.  Standard positive reinforcement methods were used, and if you want to enjoy watching Ronan in action, check out "Beat keeping in a CA Sea Lion" on youtube.
 From lab studies, we've known for many years that animals can learn to time events quite accurately.  How cool that scientists are now building on this research to look at something that appears to come naturally to many people.  I would say everyone, but I've danced with some who could have used a few lessons!

Most people, like Durrell's pigeon, find that moving in rhythm with the beat of music is rewarding.  Where does that come from?  Would Ronan eventually enjoy "dancing" and do it spontaneously, like Durrell's bird?  Stay tuned for further research.

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