60-Second Mind

Brains Built to Cooperate

Research finds support for the theory that brains excel when we cooperate. At least in duet-singing wrens. Christie Nicholson reports

We are social animals. So you might assume our brains are built to excel when we cooperate with each other, as opposed to when we function in isolation. Now research with another animal supports that notion.


Plain-tailed wrens in Ecuador are famous for duets between males and females. While their song is done cooperatively, with the male and female singing alternate syllables, it sounds surprisingly like one bird singing solo. Scientists who have recorded and analyzed hundreds of such songs decided to capture some of the birds to monitor the brain regions responsible for singing. They anticipated that the birds’ neurons would respond strongest to their own individual voice. But that’s not what happened.


They found that the birds’ neurons reacted far more strongly to the duet than when they sang their parts alone. The research is in the journal Science.


That’s fine for Ecuadorian birds but what about us humans? Well, vertebrate animals all have similar neurotransmitter systems and the brain is organized in much of the same way—so the paper’s authors hold that there is relevance to the human brain. Or at least to those vertebrates who have a tendency to cooperate in the first place.


—Christie Nicholson


[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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