I’m finishing up this tome “Music, Language, and the Brain.” It’s been one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read primarily because its excessive use of academic terminology, but worth plowing through because occasionally you stumble across really fascinating nuggets of science. For instance, at one point the author is describing an experiment involving baby chickens and quails. As eggs, the embryonic birds were housed in isolation so that they could not hear the sounds of their parents. When they were hatched, the chicks showed a preference for the sound of chickens, and quails showed a preference for the sound of quails. This would seem to indicate that we have a genetic, inborn preference for the “talk” of members of our species.
But here’s where it gets weird. Check this out…
A decade after this original study, Long performed an impressive experiment that probed the neural basis for this preference. Using surgical techniques pioneered by Balaban, the researchers cut small holes in the eggs and operated on the embryos, transplanting different portions of the developing neural tube of quails into chicks. They then sealed up the eggs and housed them in incubators isolated from adult bird sounds. After hatching, they tested these chimera birds for their perceptual preferences using the methods of Park and Balaban. They found that when the transplant was in a specific region of the developing midbrain, the chimeras showed a preference for the quail maternal call.
It seems insane that they can even perform such surgeries, and even crazier that it actually worked: the chunk of brain responsible for responding to quail sounds happily set up shop in the chicken brain.
One must wonder if these mutant birds grew to gigantic proportions and developed an unceasing hunger for human flesh. The book doesn’t mention this, but that would be somewhat off-topic.