Is the truth really stranger than fiction? Well, breakthroughs in the scientific community prove that old saying to be true just about every day, and a recent discovery by neurologists at UT Southwestern is literally mind-numbing, given what it’s discovered about our actual brains.
In fact, a few onlookers pointed out that their big experiment resembles the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The only difference is that their bold theory is more daring than anything you might see on the silver screen.
When it comes to a baby’s first word, “ma-ma” and “da-da” are both popular choices. But where exactly do our fundamentals of language come from? To solve that puzzle, scientists are looking in an unusual place.
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They’re focused on finches — zebra finches, to be exact. These tiny birds displayed some unusual communication habits that could provide some fundamental answers. Of course, it wasn’t the first time finches were involved in a scientific breakthrough.
In the 1830s, Charles Darwin famously observed beak variations across different finch species. These adaptations went on to form the bedrock of his theory of evolution. Modern-day scientists, on the other hand, were interested in a different aspect of their beaks.
Todd Roberts and his colleagues at UT Southwestern were fascinated by their singing. While these tunes sounded like meaningless melodies to the untrained ear, the neurologist surmised that they contained deeper meanings than previously believed.
Scientists previously observed that parent finches trilled certain songs to their eggs. Miraculously, this behavior suggested that the bird embryos were actually capable of listening to and processing that information.
For instance, daddy finches emitted a particular tune whenever the outside temperature got dangerously hot. In response, the eggs actually halted their growth rate so that they wouldn’t become too large and overheated.
Besides protecting the finch offspring, Roberts wondered if this behavior had a second effect. The grown-up birds weren’t learning this particular song at karoake night, so was it possible that it became implanted in finches’ infant minds?
At first, Roberts’ mind reeled at the thought. This wild theory sounded a little too much like Inception, the Leo DiCaprio thriller in which he placed ideas into the unwitting mind of his sleeping target.
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Notwithstanding the sci-fi aspects of that movie, Roberts knew it had some credence. He turned to the cutting-edge practice of optogenics, which beams transmissions of light to neurons in the brain.
In turn, these signals bring about a reaction in a specific part of the body. Doctors have long known that different brain regions control distinct parts of the body, but these mad scientists wanted to play around with its innermost workings.
If the singing of a parent could produce memories in the brains of developing birds, Roberts figured he could encode his own patterns with optogenics. He could only hope that these communications would register.
Using repeated sequences of lights flashing on and off, the neurologists inundated the birds’ brains with distinct rhythms. With a bit of luck, the transmissions would take the place of their parents’ tunes.
Of course, Roberts couldn’t run the risk of simply replicating a common finch melody. To see if these behaviors were really learned at the developmental stage, he devised original rhythms for the birds.
Amazingly, as the baby birds developed, they started singing in patterns that perfectly followed the pulses of light! Granted, the light didn’t instruct them which notes to sing. They were all over the map, harmony-wise.
Also, these original tunes didn’t mean much to the birds. But Roberts believed it was the beginning of a larger breakthrough. He essentially stepped in as a composer and played the finch’s growing minds like an orchestra.
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“This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioral-goal memories,” explained Roberts, “those memories that guide us when we want to imitate anything from speech to learning the piano.”
The mysterious pathways of the brain suddenly seemed a little more traversable. With that victory under their belts, Roberts and his team have their sights set on human applications. The mere suggestion is making huge waves.
If they could teach zebra finches a new song, would it be possible to somehow understand — and correct — developmental language disorders in our own species? Well, we probably shouldn’t expect a fix right away.
The circuitry of human minds is endlessly more complicated than that of our feathered friends. There is still a ton to learn about what’s going on in our own heads, but Roberts very likely opened the door to that ultimate answer.
This Inception-style experiment may seem like it has no place in practical science, but fictional technology can actually play a huge role in real-life breakthroughs. In fact, all of these sci-fi devices went on to inspire actual discoveries!
1. Star Wars – Hologram Performances: The technology behind your favorite late artists performing as holograms was actually inspired by the famous scene with R2D2 in Star Wars.
2. War of the Worlds – The Multistage Rocket: American scientist Robert Goddard developed the multistage rocket technology still used in the space launches today after reading this famous sci-fi novel.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Tablet: Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork is considered to be the first appearance of this fun little device. The film was even used in a defense against Apple when they attempted to copyright their iPad tablet technology.
4. 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea – The Submarine: This nautical tale inspired American inventor Simon Lake to develop an undersea vessel. Jules Verne, the author of the novel, even sent Lake a letter of congratulations after learning of his invention.
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5. Dial F For Frankenstein – The World Wide Web: In 1972, sci-fi writer Arthur Clark penned a story about a series of telephones that eventually turn on their creators. An MIT student by the name of Tim Berners-Lee was so inspired by this idea he used it as the foundation for the modern Internet.
6. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – The Defibrillator: Mary Shelley’s book didn’t just raise the notion of using electricity to create life. In fact, numerous medical experts have cited Shelley’s novel as the inspiration behind the modern defibrillator.
7. Star Trek – The Cell Phone: Inspired by the communication technology used by the crew of the Enterprise, Martin Cooper went on to invent the first iteration of the cell phone in 1973.
8. Robur the Conqueror – The Helicopter: Jules Verne is once again credited for inspiring an innovation in travel. Impressed with the author’s 1886 novel, engineer Igor Sikorsky would go on to build the world’s first helicopter.
9. Metropolis – Video Calls: The first recorded appearance of the concept of video calling was in the 1927 film Metropolis, which would go on to inspire the technology behind Skype and FaceTime.
10. Dick Tracy – The Smart Watch: This technology was actually introduced by comic book detective Dick Tracy during several of his outer space adventures in the 1960’s.
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11. Blade Runner – Digital Billboards: While Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? introduced a number of advanced technologies, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation gave us the concept of video billboards.
12. Fahrenheit 451 – The 3D Printer: Ray Bradbury’s novel features the first 3D printer, which is used throughout the novel to print tools, weapons, and other supplies on the fly.
13. Looking Backward – Credit Cards: Author Edward Bellamy predicted that by around the second millennium, the most popular currency would be in card form and could be used on a global scale.
14. Sally – Self-Driving Cars: Published in 1953, Isaac Asimov’s short story predicted that all cars would be automated by 2057, but hopefully we can accomplish this sooner.
15. Star Trek: The Next Generation – QuickTime: On the Enterprise, computers allowed the crew to view multiple forms of media on one screen. This inspired Apple’s Steve Perlman to create QuickTime in 1991.
16. The Fatal Eggs – Laser Beams: While most credit H.G. Wells with the idea, Mikhail Bulgakov actually proposed a laser-producing experiment in his 1925 novel. Nearly 40 years later, Bulgakov’s experiment would be recreated to produce laser beams in real life.
17. Peacetime Uses for V2 – Satellites: British writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed a series of geostationary communication satellites. While it didn’t garner much attention at the time, an array of satellites–dubbed the “Clarke Belt”–can be seen orbiting the Earth today.
18. Triplanetary – Combat Information Center: A main feature of the Directrix command ship in E.E. Smith’s Triplanetary, the author’s fictional equivalent of a C.I.C. would go on to inspire a U.S. naval officer to introduce the concept onto new ships.
19. The Shockwave Rider – The Computer Virus: John Brunner’s 1975 novel introduced the world to the concept of a “worm” that replicates itself in order to spread to other computers. Seven years later, two Xerox researchers made it a reality!
20. Waldo – The Mechanical Arm: Robert A. Heinlein’s short story revolves around technological innovations, one of which being the mechanical arm. Used primarily in automated factories, these robotic appendages have even been nicknamed “Waldo” after Heinlein’s tale.