Here you see a large white bird balanced on the back of an office chair, bobbing his head, stomping his feet and ... dancing just like a human. Snowball’s videos are changing the way researchers understand the neurology of music and dancing.
Aniruddh Patel, senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in California, got the link from a friend. He saw not just a funny bird but also a potential solution to a scientific argument dating back to Darwin: some researchers say that human brains have been specially wired by natural selection for dancing, because dancing confers survival benefits through group bonding. If that were true, according to Patel, you would see dancing only in animals that, like humans, have a long history of music and dance, which no other species has. The fact that only humans dance has long been seen as evidence supporting the evolution argument.
So Patel sent an e-mail message to Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz, and asked to study her bird. “The obvious question was whether he was just mimicking somebody,” Patel said. To answer that, he made CDs of Snowball’s favorite song (“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys) at various speeds. Schulz videotaped Snowball dancing to each version, and then Patel graphed Snowball’s movement against the music’s beat. “Like a child, he synched to the music for stretches of time, then danced a little faster or a little slower, but always in a rhythmic way,” Patel says. “Statistically those periods when he’s locked onto the beat are not by chance — they really do indicate sensitivity to the beat and an ability to synchronize with it.”
What’s most interesting to Patel is that this ability is present in birds but not in primates, our closest animal relatives. “This is no coincidence,” he says. Patel says dancing is associated with our vocal abilities, not musical hard wiring. Humans and parrots are two of the few species with brains wired for vocal learning — hearing sounds (like words), then coordinating complex movements (lips, tongues, vocal cords) to reproduce those sounds. Other animals who have this ability: dolphins, seals and whales. “In theory,” he says, “they may be able to dance, too. We just don’t know it yet.”
Friday, December 19, 2008
From the New York Times Magazine special issue on 'Year in Ideas 2008', slightly edited: