Sarah Woolley, PhD

Departments And Divisions

  • Department of Psychology (Columbia University)
  • Associate Professor of Psychology (Columbia University)
  • Chair, Department of Psychology
Sarah Woolley, <span>PhD</span>

Our work focuses on understanding how the perception of communication sounds is accomplished in the brain. In songbirds, we study how the brain codes vocalizations at successive neural processing stages, and how that neural coding is related to experience and species evolution. Songbirds are particularly interesting because they learn to recognize, respond to and produce the complex songs of other birds. They use their songs to communicate socially, in the contexts of mating and self advertisement. Thus bird song is a useful system for understanding how complex sensory signals are encoding and decoded by the brain and how that process results in social communication. The lab currently has four directions that address how the brain functions during song processing/perception.

First, auditory neurons in the songbird brain encode songs differently from other sounds. The basic tuning properties of these neurons appear to vary depending on the sounds that birds hear and appear to be specialized for coding song. Using electrophysiology, anatomy and computational analysis techniques, we are studying the mechanisms of tuning plasticity in these sensory neurons, and how that plasticity is related to perception. Second, we are interested in the co-evolution of vocal behavior and auditory perception. We use electrophysiology and behavioral analyses to understand how the auditory system differs functionally among songbird species with songs that differ in their acoustic composition. Third, we are interested both in how experience shapes behavioral responses to song, and also the neural encoding of songs and sound in general. We manipulate the acoustic experience of young birds and adults and examine how auditory neurons function and how behavioral measures of perception and social interaction vary with experience. Fourth, we are interested in the salient acoustic aspects of songs for recognition and discrimination. We use the manipulation of the acoustic properties of songs and behavioral techniques to address this issue.

Lab Locations

  • Schermerhorn Hall

    1190 Amsterdam Ave
    Room 406, Mail Code: 5501
    New York, NY 10027
    (212) 851-9421

Research Interests

  • Sensory Physiology
  • Cognitive/Systems Neuroscience
  • Systems and Circuits


Woolley SMN, Gill P, and Theunissen FE (2006). Stimulus-dependentauditory tuning results in synchronized population coding ofvocalizations in the songbird midbrain. J Neurosci, 26: 2499-2512

Woolley SMN, Fremouw TE, Hsu A, and Theunissen FE (2005).Spectro-temporal modulation tuning as a mechanism for auditorydiscrimination of natural sounds. Nat Neurosci, 8: 1371-1379.

Woolley SMN and Casseday JH (2005). Processing of modulated sounds inthe zebra finch auditory midbrain: responses to noise, frequency sweepsand sinusoidal amplitude modulations. J Neurophysiol, 94: 1143-1157.

Woolley SMN and Casseday JH (2004). Response properties of singleneurons in the zebra finch auditory midbrain: response patterns,frequency coding, intensity coding and spike latencies. J Neurophysiol,91: 136-151.

Woolley SMN (2004). Auditory experience and adult song plasticity. Ann Acad NY Sci, 1016: 208-221.