eLife (Sep 2019)

Learning is enhanced by tailoring instruction to individual genetic differences

  • David G Mets,
  • Michael S Brainard

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 8


Read online

It is widely argued that personalized instruction based on individual differences in learning styles or genetic predispositions could improve learning outcomes. However, this proposition has resisted clear demonstration in human studies, where it is difficult to control experience and quantify outcomes. Here, we take advantage of the tractable nature of vocal learning in songbirds (Lonchura striata domestica) to test the idea that matching instruction to individual genetic predispositions can enhance learning. We use both cross-fostering and computerized instruction with synthetic songs to demonstrate that matching the tutor song to individual predispositions can improve learning across genetic backgrounds. Moreover, we find that optimizing instruction in this fashion can equalize learning differences across individuals that might otherwise be construed as genetically determined. Our results demonstrate potent, synergistic interactions between experience and genetics in shaping song, and indicate the likely importance of such interactions for other complex learned behaviors.