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Veni-grant for Michelle Spierings: ‘Do birds hear tick-tock too, or tock-tick?’

‘I did not expect to receive the grant, but it will make an amazing research possible,’ Michelle Spierings says. The researcher of the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL) got awarded a Veni-grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

When people hear a fixed rhythm, they will quickly recognize a pattern. Therefore, a clock will sound like tick-tock, instead of tock-tick, despite the clock producing the same monotone sound. It may seem strange that we imagine such a pattern. But according to Spierings, this evolutionary development of the brain does have its advantages. 

Michelle Spierings

High-low combinations

‘Being able to recognize patterns helps with speech development,’ she explains. ‘Most words start in a high pitch and then get lower. That means that these high-low combinations are more easily recognized as words. Additionally, you would think that pauses between words are important, but we tend to skip these often when we speak. So it is easier for babies to learn words by the high-low alternations. This rhythmic grouping bias thus is very important.’
The question remains when this bias has evolved and how it links to speech and music. ‘What I want to know is whether we already had this rhythmic feeling, and is that why speech and music is developed as it is? Or is it the other way around?’ With her Veni-grant, Spierings hopes to gain more insight into the phenomenon. ‘I would think that we would already have this bias and that is why we structured our language and musicality the way it is. But to be honest, there is little we know for sure yet.’

Monkey and birds

To get a better understanding of the evolution of the bias, Spierings will look at the development in other species. One of them is the marmoset, a monkey that is evolutionarily close to humans and can be researched well. Additionally, the researcher will look at zebra finches and parakeets. The birds are more distant from humans, but learn to make sounds similarly: By getting input from others and mimicking them. None of the monkey species can do this.

Few critical questions

Despite Spierings not being sure yet when she will start her research project, she is excited about being awarded the grant. ‘This is the first time I got a grant this big after sending in the proposal on my own,’ she says. ‘During the interview round of this grant, they asked only a few critical questions and did not press anything. I was sure by then that they were not interested in my research. But apparantly it was the opposite,’ she laughs.  

Veni - NWO Talentprogramme

The Veni grant is part of the NWO Talent Scheme, together with the Vidi and Vici grants. The Veni is for researchers who have recently obtained their PhD. Within the Talent Scheme reserachers are free to conduct research of their own choice. This gives innovative and curiosity-driven research a boost. NWO selects researchers on the basis of the researcher’s qualities, the innovative nature of the research, the expected impact of the research proposal and the possibilities for knowledge utilisation. A total of 89 researchers have been awarded a Veni grant.

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