Keynote Speaker: Constance Scharff
Chair: Simon Fisher

Thursday, August 28, 1:00 – 2:00 pm, Effectenbeurszaal

Constance Scharff

Constance Scharff is Professor of Animal Behavior at the Freie Universität Berlin. Work in her laboratory has contributed to elucidate mechanisms and functions of learned vocal communication. Her current research investigates genetic, neural and behavioral parallels between bird song, music and language.

Singing in the (b)rain

Spoken language and birdsong share a number of striking parallels. Comparing the biologically tractable cognitive abilities necessary for language and for birdsong is a fruitful endeavor to identify, which properties are shared and which are unique to each. I will review evidence for the relevance of the FoxP2 gene and its associated molecular network for speech and its role in modulating variability in the songbird basal ganglia circuit relevant for the acquisition and production of birdsong. However, I will argue that the similarities between human language and songbirds are not limited to sensorimotor processes – but may extend to other structural and functional properties. Many questions regarding the similarities between spoken language and birdsong remain unanswered, but increasing evidence suggests that human and non-human communication systems may rely on conserved molecular toolkits that act as genetic modules. These may specify the neural circuits subserving these particular behaviors, and organize their function. Elucidating these genetic modules in different animal models may inform the evolution of language and other complex traits.