Research in my lab focuses on the general question of how experience acts on the nervous system to shape behavior.
We use Bengalese finches as a model organism to study how the brain learns and executes complex and variable vocal behaviors.

We study vocal learning in songbirds because it is a quantifiable natural behavior that exhibits general features of vertebrate learning, and it is subserved by a well-elucidated and accessible set of brain regions. Song learning includes a perceptual learning component during which young male birds listen to and memorize the song of an adult 'tutor.' In many species, females do not produce song, but rather learn to discriminate subtle song features to choose a mate later in life. After song learning, male birds enter a sensorimotor learning stage during which they use auditory feedback to gradually refine their 'babbling' vocalizations to resemble the memorized tutor song.  In many species, this learning is limited to an early 'critical period' and is strongly influenced by social interactions. 


Song learning is a rich model for studying the mechanisms that contribute to sensory and sensorimotor learning. In particular, song learning mirrors many components of human language learning. For instance, we as humans - like birds - memorize and practice vocal patterns during early development, and our speech is influenced by auditory feedback throughout our lives. Thus, songbirds provide a tractable model for understanding the neural mechanisms of speech learning and production.

The vocal behaviors of songbirds also provide powerful models for studying how the brain produces and modifies complex motor behaviors in a variety of social contexts.  Perhaps most notable of these social contexts is courtship. Males use song as a mating display, advertising their genetic fitness through song quality, while females indicate their preference through a variety of visual and auditory cues.  

The vocal behaviors of songbirds also provide powerful models for studying how the brain produces complex sequences of motor actions. In Bengalese finches, song is formed by stringing together short, discrete vocalizations known as syllables with short gaps of silence in between. The transition from some syllables to the next is seemingly deterministic in some cases (syllable A is always followed by syllable B) and probabilistic in others (syllable C is followed by syllable D 60% of the time and syllable E 40% of the time). By understanding the neural dynamics which lead to these variable transitions, we can begin to unravel the way in which brains produce action sequences in general.