Frederic Theunissen

Research Expertise and Interest

behavior, cognition, brain, psychology, birdsong, vocal learning, audition, neurophysiology, speech perception, computational neuroscience, theoretical neuroscience

Research Description

Frederic Theunissen is a professor in the Department of Psychology.  Theunissen's research includes:

Auditory physiology - Using songbirds as a model system, Frederic Theunissen's laboratory is researching the neural representation of behaviorally relevant natural sounds at various levels of the ascending auditory system.  They have previously described how the auditory cortex acts as a modulation filter bank.  They are now studying the neural computations that allow us to categorize sounds into meaningful groups.  They are also studying the development of the auditory system and the interaction of the auditory system with the vocal system.  In collaboration with other groups, they perform similar investigations using human neuro-physiological data. 

Theoretical Neuroscience in Audition - The goal of this line of research is to derive computational schemes for sound processing that would be beneficial for biological organisms faced with the identification of behaviorally relevant sounds or sound features presented in a background of environmental noise.  They then study the link between these optimal computational schemes and major perceptual dimensions in audition.  These theoretical predictions are tested against our physiological data.  

Computational Neuroscience -  Theunissen's laboratory is currently developing analytical and numerical algorithms in applied systems analysis and information theory.  They use these tools to estimate the response propreties, the reliability and the redundancy of high-level sensory neurons.  

Auditory and Vocal Behavior -  Theunissen's laboratory is also interested in vocal communication behavior in humans and animals.  This works combines bioacoustical analyses with experiments in animal behavior or human psychophysics.  At a proximal level, they are interested in understanding the link between neural representations for communication sounds (or music) to the behavioral auditory discrimination for the same stimuli.  At an ultimate level, they design experiments to gain insights on the evolution of communication calls in terms of their signaling characteristics, their volutional control and adaptations that have lead to vocal plasticity and imitation.

In the News

Zebra finches amazing at unmasking the bird behind the song

If songbirds could appear on “The Masked Singer” reality TV competition, zebra finches would likely steal the show. That’s because they can rapidly memorize the signature sounds of at least 50 different members of their flock, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

Pop-outs: How the brain extracts meaning from noise

When you’re suddenly able to understand someone despite their thick accent, or finally make out the lyrics of a song, your brain appears to be re-tuning to recognize speech that was previously incomprehensible.

How Songbirds May Help Build a Better Hearing Aid

UC Berkeley psychologist Fred Theunissen's work on songbirds could help improve hearing aids to allow people to home in on specific sounds in noisy environments, a particular problem for the hard of hearing.

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