Art Garfunkel once described his legendary musical chemistry with Paul Simon, “We meet somewhere in the air through the vocal cords … .” But a new study of duetting songbirds from Ecuador, the plain-tail wren (Pheugopedius euophrys), has offered another tune explaining the mysterious connection between successful performing duos. It’s a link of their minds, and it happens, in fact, as each singer mutes the brain of the other as they coordinate their duets. In a study published May 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers studying brain activity of singing male and female plain-tailed wrens has discovered that the species synchronizes their frenetically paced duets, surprisingly, by inhibiting the song-making regions of their partner’s brain as they exchange phrases.
Researchers say that the auditory feedback exchanged between wrens during their opera-like duets momentarily inhibits motor circuits used for singing in the listening partner, which helps link the pair’s brains and coordinate turn-taking for a seemingly telepathic performance. The study also offers fresh insight into how humans and other cooperative animals use sensory cues to act in concert with one another. “You could say that timing is everything,” said Eric Fortune, co-author of the study and neurobiologist at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Department of Biological Sciences. “What these wrens have shown us is that for any good collaboration, partners need to become ‘one’ through sensory linkages. The take-home message is that when we are cooperating well… we become a single entity with our partners.”