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The New York Times Interviews Aniruddh D. Patel, Snowball The Dancing Cockatoo Researcher

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Remember Snowball, the unassuming cockatoo that could kick your ass on the dance floor?

It turns out those dance moves weren’t amazing from just a choreographic perspective. Even scientists were floored by what they saw.

In today’s New York Times science section, Claudia Dreifus interviews Aniruddh D. Patel, the neuroscientist who adopted Snowball after seeing the video on YouTube. Patel, who describes himself as a “neuroscientist of music,” has previously done groundbreaking research on the relationship between music learning and language learning.

Snowball’s gyrations have helped Patel hypothesize on how animals (and especially humans) evolved to be beat-responsive. From the New York Times article:

Q. YOU SAY THAT SNOWBALL CHANGED YOUR THINKING. HOW?

A. Before Snowball, I wondered if moving to a musical beat was uniquely human. Snowball doesn’t need to dance to survive, and yet, he did. Perhaps, this was true of humans, too?

Since working with Snowball, I’ve come to think we could learn more music neuroscience by studying the behaviors of not just parrots, but perhaps dolphins, seals, songbirds — also vocal learners.

We eventually published the Snowball research in Current Biology. A group at Harvard published a paper right alongside ours in which they surveyed thousands of YouTube videos to see if there were other animals spontaneously moving to a beat. They found about 12 or 13 parrots. No dogs. No cats. No horses.

What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees. Since vocal learning creates links between the hearing and movement centers of the brain, I hypothesized that this is what you need to be able to move to beat of music.

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