Researchers have developed a method to convert the vocal muscle movements of birds during sleep into audible, synthetic songs, revealing insights into their dream states.


Summary: Researchers from the University of Buenos Aires have developed a method to translate birds’ vocal muscle activity during sleep into synthetic songs, as reported in the journal Chaos. This breakthrough utilizes electromyography (EMG) to capture the muscle activity of the Great Kiskadee during sleep, which is then synthesized into songs using a dynamic systems model. The study not only demonstrates the physical mechanisms of birdsong but also explores the biophysical analysis of dreams, potentially aiding understanding of sleep’s role in learning and memory consolidation in birds.

Key Takeaways:

  • University of Buenos Aires researchers have created a way to translate the vocal muscle activity of birds during sleep into synthetic songs, using electromyography and dynamic systems modeling.
  • The study specifically analyzed the Great Kiskadee, a bird whose complex musculature and vocal mechanisms were well-suited for this pioneering research.
  • This method represents a new exploratory tool for the quantitative study of dreams, offering potential insights into how sleep and dreaming support cognitive functions like learning and memory.

For more than 20 years, researchers have known that areas of birds’ brains dedicated to singing show neural patterns during sleep akin to the ones they use while awake and singing.

Since the “code” behind how this information gets processed is unknown, it hasn’t been possible to map a pattern of nocturnal activity to song. Until now.

Translating Dreams into Song

In Chaos, from AIP Publishing, a team of researchers from the University of Buenos Aires report a method to translate the vocal muscle activity of birds during sleep into synthetic songs.

“Dreams are one of the most intimate and elusive parts of our existence,” says author Gabriel Mindlin, who specializes in exploring the physical mechanisms of birdsong, in a release. “Knowing that we share this with such a distant species is very moving. And the possibility of entering the mind of a dreaming bird—listening to how that dream sounds—is a temptation impossible to resist.”

Vocal muscle activity of birds during sleep can be translated into synthetic songs. Photo credit: Romina Kuppe and Ana Amador

A few years ago, Mindlin and colleagues discovered that these patterns of neuronal activity descend to the syringeal muscles—a bird’s vocal apparatus. They can capture sleep birds’ muscular activity data via recording electrodes, called electromyography (EMG), and then use a dynamical systems model to translate it into synthetic songs.

“During the past 20 years, I’ve worked on the physics of birdsong and how to translate muscular information into song,” says Mindlin in a release. “In this way, we can use the muscle activity patterns as time-dependent parameters of a model of birdsong production and synthesize the corresponding song.”

Exploring the Biophysics of Dreams

Many bird species have complex musculature, so translating syringeal activity into song is a bit of a challenge.

“For this initial work, we chose the Great Kiskadee, a member of the flycatcher family and a species for which we’d recently discovered its physical mechanisms of singing, and presented some simplifications,” says Mindlin in a release. “In other words: we chose a species for which the first step in this program was viable.”

Hearing the sounds emerge from the data of a bird dreaming about a territorial confrontation with a raised crest of feathers—a gesture that during the day is associated with a trill used in confrontations—was incredibly moving for Mindlin.

“I felt great empathy imagining that solitary bird recreating a territorial dispute in its dream,” he says in a release. “We have more in common with other species than we usually recognize.”

The team’s study presents biophysics as a new exploratory tool capable of opening the door for the quantitative study of dreams.

“We’re interested in using these syntheses, which can be implemented in real-time, to interact with a bird while it dreams,” says Mindlin in a release. “And for species that learn, to address questions about the role of sleep during learning.”

Photo 28255894 © Rinus Baak | Dreamstime.com