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Seminar: Professor Richard Hahnloser

October 10, 2016 @ 16:00 - 17:30

Social learning in songbirds: dissecting neural algorithms using behavioural experiments.
Monday 10 October @ 4 pm5:30 pm (Le Gros Clark Lecture Theatre)

Richard Hahnloser from the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich will discuss his research at the Cortex Club on Monday 10 October. He is interested in computational goals involving sensory inputs and motor outputs, and his research group studies vocal production and vocal learning in songbirds using reductionist experimental and theoretical approaches.

Behavioural science allows reading out the computations performed by the brain, whereas neuroscience reveals how they are implemented. In my talk, I will reveal the algorithm songbirds use to match their songs to an auditory template. We tested how zebra finches cope with the computational complexity of song learning, by prompting juveniles to modify their song to correct conflicting phonological and sequential mismatches in song syllables. Birds matched each syllable to the most acoustically similar sound in the target, regardless of its temporal position, resulting in unnecessary sequence errors that were later corrected. Thus, birds prioritised efficient learning of syllable vocabulary, at the cost of inefficient syntax learning. Overall, we find that birds learn their songs by solving a linear assignment problem. This is the type of problem that taxi companies solve to optimally dispatch their taxis to waiting customers.

In the second part of my talk I will show how insights obtained from observation compare with insights gained from trial-and-error. We find that birds can learn to discriminate auditory stimuli by observing expert performers. These findings agree with social learning theories showing that copying others’ behaviour is a successful strategy. However, our results indicate that the benefit of rapid learning from observation comes at the cost of poor generalisation, revealing a sensory analogue to the common view that the best means to learn a (motor) skill is rigorous practice.

Further reading
Anisimov et al. (2014). Reconstruction of vocal interactions in a group of small songbirds. Nat. Methods 11, 1135–1137.


October 10, 2016
16:00 - 17:30


Lecture Theatre, Le Gros Clark Building
Le Gros Clark Building
Oxford, OX1 3QX
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