Why would the brain systems responsible for vocal learning also work for rhythm perception and dancing?
To speak, you’ve got to have precise motor control over your vocal apparatus. You’re controlling your larynx, your tongue, your breathing. It’s a very complicated series of motions, and you’re doing them in a precise order. And you’re constantly monitoring the feedback. Think about learning to reproduce a novel sound: If I say you’re going to learn a new sound today, the French eu, you try to do that by listening to me and then making a sound and comparing it to the model you have in your head.
I think because of vocal learning we have some direct connections between auditory centers and motor planning regions of our brain—not just the actual motor control centers but the regions that do the more abstract planning of movements. In vocal learning we use that brain circuitry to control our vocal apparatus. But in beat perception, that circuit seems to connect our hearing and our limb movements, or our head movements, or whatever we use for dancing.
Because of these connections, we seem to use the motor system to actually predict the timing of rhythmic and periodic sounds. Brain imaging of beat perception seems to support this. When people perceive sound with a beat, even when they aren’t moving, fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] scans show activation in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor areas. It’s almost as if we’re using our motor systems to hear the beat.
Several researchers have linked our sense of rhythm to brain regions called the basal ganglia. What are they, and what
do they do?
The basal ganglia are deep brain structures that are generally thought to form a motor sequencing and motor control circuit but also seem to be involved in various cognitive functions, including beat perception. It’s interesting because this region of the brain seems to have been modified in evolution due to vocal learning.
Researchers have studied the brains of birds that learn songs and the brains of those that don’t, comparing the anatomy to see what changed to support vocal learning. The basal ganglia are one of the regions with major modifications. In the brains of vocal-learning birds, the basal ganglia became connected to auditory regions of the brain, which you don’t see in non-vocal-learning birds.
I collaborated on a study, just published in Behavioural Brain Research, that tested the rhythmic abilities of people with basal ganglia lesions. We gave them a test in which they had to tap in time to a metronome. The metronome would change tempo at some point, and they had to change their tapping to synchronize with it. These people did not perform normally, which is another indication that the basal ganglia are involved in rhythm.
How is your own sense of rhythm?
I’m not bad—I’m not a drummer, but I played musical instruments. But we would love to find some people who really have no rhythm. We all know people with two left feet who don’t seem to feel it on the dance floor. Are they just shy in public, and would they do fine if you gave them a rhythm test in the privacy of their own home? Or are there people who really don’t feel the beat? There’s a small percentage of people who are musically tone deaf; maybe there are people who are rhythm deaf too.
The DISCOVER Dancing Pet Challenge
Neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel says he often gets e-mail from people who claim that their cats, horses, or other nonfeathered pets have rhythm. Patel suspects that these cases are akin to the dancing dogs featured in YouTube videos, in which the animals don’t innately respond to the beat but instead react to cues from their human partners. However, if your pet really does have rhythm, he wants to know about it. “If someone has a dog that can dance to the beat, it will totally refute my hypothesis,” he says, “and that’s progress in science.”
If you think your pet proves Patel wrong, collect some video evidence, upload it to YouTube, and e-mail the link to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will post the best videos on May 1 (along with footage of Snowball shaking his groove thang).