Watching a dog rockin’ out to music is pure entertainment, and yet it is so much more. In science speak, the way to say that animals can keep a beat is that they have the ability to entrain movement to external rhythms. YouTube Sensation Snowball the Cockatoo demonstrated avian rhythm and showed that this talent is not exclusive to humans.
Initially, scientists hypothesized that only animals who are capable of vocal mimicry or complex vocal learning can keep a beat. This suggested that perhaps both abilities rely on the same neural mechanisms, but further study disproved this idea.
Sea lions don’t learn complex vocalizations and they aren’t vocal mimics, yet a California sea lion named Ronan displays an enviable degree of rhythm. Ronan was trained to bob her head to repeated, regular sounds much like a metronome in exchange for fish and was able to apply this knowledge to novel rhythms, including highly complex music. Scientists varied the music, and found that within a few beats of a perturbation in tempo, Ronan found the beat again.
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Ronan’s response to changes in the tempo of the song were predictable based on complex mathematical equations describing the actions of coupled oscillators. Coupled oscillators are objects that move back and forth individually but exchange energy back and forth. Two pendulums attached by a spring behave as coupled oscillators. A simplified explanation is that the neural activity in the auditory center of the brain first oscillates in time with the music, and that these oscillations drive the oscillations of the neurons in the motor areas of the brain that relate to movement.
The work with Ronan led researchers to theorize that beat-keeping exists in the same highly conserved neural mechanisms across a range of species, including dogs. A natural sense of rhythm could have ancient evolutionary origins and be widespread among animals. The ability to find and keep a beat even under changing conditions may be one more trait that we share with our dogs.
Has your dog shown signs of rhythm?