Consciousness Blog 13 November 2011

When you were a teenager, did you dance (jive? tango? twist?) with a partner? Did you agonize over whether your moves 'fitted in' with your partner's? Did the fit seem to happen 'naturally' with some partners? Did you believe that a good dancing session brought you closer to that individual, forming a bond between you?

A research team at Johns Hopkins University says that brains are pre-wired for all these things to be true, and not just in humans. Led by Eric Fortune, a behavioral neuroscientist with the University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, the team studied duetting in Amazonian plain-tailed wrens, showing that the birds' brains responded more strongly to a duet sequence than to individual singing.

"In both males and females, we found that neurons reacted more strongly to the duet song – with both the male and female birds singing – over singing their own parts alone," says Fortune. "In fact, the brain's responses to duet songs were stronger than were responses to any other sound. It looked like the brains of wrens are wired to cooperate."

Fortune also points out that similar mechanisms operate across a wide range of advanced animals: "The neurotransmitter systems that control brain activity at the molecular level are nearly identical among all vertebrates and the layout of the brain structures is the same."

If the brains of all vertebrates are constructed to favour social behaviours, one then wants to ask how far back in pre-vertebrate phylogeny one might find similar mechanisms. At all events, it surely follows that group (social) behaviours were a universal adaptation from very early on in evolution, and that solitary behaviour is to be seen as an aberration, adaptive no doubt when it occurs, but a departure from the social norm.

Read more in Chapter Two of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Animals.


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