Research in the lab takes an integrative, systems-level approach to understanding the neural mechanisms that govern the sensory, perceptual, and cognitive processing of acoustic communication signals and real-world sounds. Our primary focus is on the elaborate vocal communication system of the European starling, a species of songbird.

Sonogram

Current research areas in the laboratory include:

(1) Representational Coding of Auditory Objects.
 We are studying multiple populations of neurons in the songbird brain, in areas analogous to mammalian auditory cortex, whose responses are directly linked to behaviorally relevant variation among conspecific songs. Current studies in the lab investigate the neural mechanisms that give rise to these representations across the auditory forebrain. We are interested in fundamental questions of stimulus coding and receptive field organization, the transformation of information across brain regions, and the role of network level activity in shaping the brain's responses to natural communication signals. Some of this work is carried out in collaboration with physicists at UCSD and the Salk Institute.

(2) Behavioral Mechanisms of Auditory Perception and Cognition. 
The lab uses a variety of behavioral techniques to examine the statistical organization of spectral and temporal song at multiple acoustic levels. We want to know how such information constrains and biases acoustic pattern perception, attention, and memory mechanisms. These studies are fueled in part by our recent demonstration that songbirds can learn very complex temporal patterns described by grammars thought to be uniquely human.

(3) Neural Mechanisms of Decision Processes.
 Female mate-choice in songbirds provides and excellent context to study the specific neural mechanisms of decision processes involving natural stimuli. The lab has developed a novel procedure for assaying female song preference that permits extracellular electrophysiology in awake behaving songbirds. We are exploring a number of behavioral manipulations that target more specific acoustic features of male songs which drive female choice.