Why a Bad Dress Rehearsal May Be a Good Thing

20 February 2005


Anyone ever been on stage or in a band? Well, you may know that sinking feeling when the last rehearsal just goes horribly wrong, which changes to elation when it's all alright the following night. Now scientists in New York have found scientific evidence that not only does sleeping on it help you perform better, but the worst dress rehearsals make for the best performances - at least if you're a zebra finch. The scientists took recordings of young finches as they learnt to sing by squawking along to adult songs. The team then developed clever computer software to analyse the learner songsmiths, to work out how much progress they'd made. Apparently, when the birds first wake up in the morning their singing isn't really up to scratch, and in fact they are much worse singers than they were the previous day. But after a morning of singing, they end up better than they were the day before - a case of one step backwards two steps forwards. Intriguingly, the birds who are the worst singers in the morning turn out to be the best singers by the time the baby birds grow up. Previous research has found that the parts of zebra finches' brains that control singing are active during the night, so it looks like sleeping on it helps the finches to learn in the long term, even though they might sound worse during the rehearsals. The researchers think that the time is right for a detailed study of the effects of sleep on human babies' learning, because the development of birdsong is quite similar to the way humans learn to speak. Though that may depend how bird-brained the babies are!


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