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Thu December 1, 2011
Dr. Eric Fortune, Johns Hopkins University - Neuroscience of Cooperation
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Eric Fortune of Johns Hopkins University reveals how our brains are wired for cooperation.
Eric Fortune is an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. His lab's research examines how neural systems control behavior, using integrative studies that exploit the strong relations between behavioral adaptations, neural mechanisms, and the evolutionary and natural histories of the organism. The research seeks to uncover the fundamental neural mechanisms that are used in vertebrate species to generate a wide range of behaviors.
Dr. Eric Fortune - Neuroscience of Cooperation
From humanity's greatest achievements, like building the pyramids, to the simple pleasure of dancing, every day we engage in cooperative behaviors that seemingly define the human experience. But we are not the only animals on this planet that cooperate - animals from ants to dolphins to zebras all participate in cooperative behaviors that can be critical for their survival and reproduction.
My colleagues and I decided to ask a simple but challenging question: how do the brains of animals coordinate behavior for the purpose of cooperation? This is a challenging question because we hardly understand how the brain of a single person or animal controls itself, let alone more than one animal at the same time. So we looked to nature for some help, and it came in the form a special species of birds, plain-tailed wrens, found on the slopes of the Andes near the equator.
These wrens cooperate to sing an amazing duet in which males and females alternate singing so rapidly that it sounds as if a single bird is singing. If their song is composed of 4 letters - ABCD - the female might sing A and C and the male B and D. Here's what it sounds like
So, how do the brains of the two birds control this cooperative performance? Consider two people dancing together - clearly each person would know his or her own part of the dance. This is exactly what we thought we would find in the brains of the birds - each would have a memory of its own part. What we found instead was quite surprising - that both birds had the strongest memory of the combined cooperative duet, a behavior that neither can produce alone.
Their brains seem to be wired for cooperation. And it is likely that our brains use the same strategy for cooperative performances like dancing the tango.