"Baby Steps" Best for Older Learners, Says Owl Study

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
September 19, 2002

The barn owl is providing wisdom about how humans learn, especially as we age.

The older we get, the tougher it is to pick up new skills like languages, music and mathematics. But a new study of juvenile and adult barn owls suggests that the older birds learn more, and faster, when their training goes step by step.

"We found that juvenile owls can pick up skills in leaps and bounds, whereas adults must take a series of baby steps," says Eric Knudsen, a neurobiologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in California, who developed the research with his graduate student Brie Linkenhoker.

The barn owl, Tyto alba, study has lessons for human victims of brain injury who must relearn skills—and for general teaching practices as well. Knudsen and Linkenhoker's research appears in the September 19 issue of Nature.

"There has never been so elegant a model demonstrating the differences in learning capabilities of the older and younger brain," says Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, whose laboratory studies the brain mechanics behind learning.

Nocturnal Hunters

Knudsen had used barn owls for earlier research on how the brain processes sound. "The barn owl is the best at sound localization," he says.

For the new study, Knudsen and Linkenhoker compared how juvenile and adult barn owls adapted to a sudden change in their visual field.

Night-prowling barn owls have special low-light vision for hunting after sunset. In total darkness, the bird relies on its acute sense of hearing. Locating prey at night involves calculating a location by sound.

Based on information from its eyes and ears, the owl develops extremely sophisticated visual and auditory maps in its brain that enable it to zero in on the prey.

For their study, Knudsen and Linkenhoker changed the birds' vision by delicately outfitting them with spectacles that shifted their visual field 23 degrees to the left or right.

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