The Talking Whale: Random Learning?

While contemplating learning, memory, and the connectome, my friend interrupted me to show me a hilarious video of goats shouting like humans. Immediately I remembered an article I presented last semester about a beluga whale, called NOC, who had learned to mimic the human voice (see links below). This phenomenon had been described previously, but this study was the first to quantify the similarity of the whale’s sounds to the human voice (Ridgway et al., 2012). The acoustic profile of the whale matched that of a human, both in amplitude and vocal burst rhythm. Not only did the profile match, but the acoustic range of the whale’s ‘speech’ pattern was also in the range of a human’s (several octaves lower than that of the beluga whale). The adjustments NOC made to produce these human-like sounds were quite complicated and probably came at a great cost energy-speaking.

After recalling this study, I then began wondering about the random aspect of successful learning and memory formation Seung had discussed in Part II of Connectome. Like random mutations in the process of evolution, the formation of new connections between neurons (synapses) is thought to be a random step in the process of learning and memory. The creation of new synapses simultaneously creates the potential for learning. So, back to the fascinating beluga whale, can we attribute NOC’s striking learning event to randomness? Did NOC’s learning potential really arise simply from the random creation of synapses and subsequent strengthening of these connections? What are the odds that NOC reconnected and restrengthened his neural wiring to produce this precise outcome? What are the odds that this phenomenon is observed in multiple whales? With the help of the emerging connectome, will certain types of learning and memory soon be explained and predicted by mathematical theory?

I’ll stop asking a thousand questions and let you listen to the talking beluga whale! I thought you all may appreciate this more than my ecology class did (mainly because it was a big stretch to present this in Terrestrial Ecology).

Science Daily – A Whale With a Distinctly Human-Like Voice: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121022122052.htm

Audio Link: http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/48866.php?from=224114

Original article: Ridgway S, Carder D, Jeffries M, & Todd M. (2012). Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean. Current Biology, 22(20): R860-861.

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3 thoughts on “The Talking Whale: Random Learning?

  1. So many questions! All of them were very good! I wish I had answers for you, Chelsea! I often find it hard to believe that the majority of us are “normal” considering the millions upon millions of possible random errors and mutations that could occur during our development or even just during the formation of our retina (Wait, is that statement even relevant to your post? If it doesn’t, I was trying to relate it to “randomness”. Or you could just consider it a “random” statement. Hahaha.)

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  2. That is super cool! I feel like it could be a genetic mutation- allowing for the range of a human. I also wonder if NOC grew up in captivity if he could understand subtle intonation of language very early in development (like human babies for the first few months), which allowed him to try to create these sounds.

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