Neural correlates of categorical perception in learned vocal communication.

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The division of continuously variable acoustic signals into discrete perceptual categories is a fundamental feature of vocal communication, including human speech. Despite the importance of categorical perception to learned vocal communication, the neural correlates underlying this phenomenon await identification. We found that individual sensorimotor neurons in freely behaving swamp sparrows expressed categorical auditory responses to changes in note duration, a learned feature of their songs, and that the neural response boundary accurately predicted the categorical perceptual boundary measured in field studies of the same sparrow population. Furthermore, swamp sparrow populations that learned different song dialects showed different categorical perceptual boundaries that were consistent with the boundary being learned. Our results extend the analysis of the neural basis of perceptual categorization into the realm of vocal communication and advance the learned vocalizations of songbirds as a model for investigating how experience shapes categorical perception and the activity of categorically responsive neurons.





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Prather, JF, S Nowicki, RC Anderson, S Peters and RA Mooney (2009). Neural correlates of categorical perception in learned vocal communication. Nat Neurosci, 12(2). pp. 221–228. 10.1038/nn.2246 Retrieved from

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Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology

Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.

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