December 22, 2004
Train Your Brain By Watching Experts Perform A Task?

Unsurprisingly brains well trained in a skill do different kinds of mental processing when watching images of others performing that skill.

Scientists have discovered that a system in our brain which responds to actions we are watching, such as a dancer's delicate pirouette or a masterful martial arts move, reacts differently if we are also skilled at doing the move. The University College London (UCL) study, published in the latest online edition of Cerebral Cortex, may help in the rehabilitation of people whose motor skills are damaged by stroke, and suggests that athletes and dancers could continue to mentally train while they are physically injured.

In the UCL study, dancers from the Royal Ballet and experts in capoeira - a Brazilian martial arts form - were asked to watch videos of ballet and capoeira movements being performed while their brain activity was measured in a MRI scanner. The same videos were shown to normal volunteers while their brains were scanned.

The UCL team found greater activity in areas of the brain collectively known as the 'mirror system' when the experts viewed movements that they had been trained to perform compared to movements they had not. The same areas in non-expert volunteers brains didn't care what dance style they saw.

While previous studies have found that the system contains mirror neurons or brain cells which fire up both when we perform an action and when we observe it, the new study shows that this system is fine tuned to each person's 'motor repertoire' or range of physical skills. The mirror system was first discovered in animals and has now been identified in humans. It is thought to play a key role in helping us to understand other people's actions, and may also help in learning how to imitate them.

This research may have an incredibly important practical application: lazier ways to learn!

Professor Patrick Haggard of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience says: "We've shown that the mirror system is finely tuned to an individual's skills. A professional ballet dancer's brain will understand a ballet move in a way that a capoiera expert's brain will not. Our findings suggest that once the brain has learned a skill, it may simulate the skill without even moving, through simple observation. An injured dancer might be able to maintain their skill despite being temporarily unable to move, simply by watching others dance. This concept could be used both during sports training and in maintaining and restoring movement ability in people who are injured."

It is still necessary to develop enough in some skill to that one will have a mind trained to learn from watching experts perform.

Dr Daniel Glaser of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience says: "Our study is as much a case of 'monkey do, monkey see' as the other way round. People's brains appear to respond differently when they are watching a movement, such as a sport, if they can do the moves themselves.

"When we watch a sport, our brain performs an internal simulation of the actions, as if it were sending the same movement instructions to our own body. But for those sports commentators who are ex-athletes, the mirror system is likely to be even more active because their brains may re-enact the moves they once made. This might explain why they get so excited while watching the game!"

Deborah Bull, Creative Director at Royal Opera House (ROH2), says: "We are delighted to be working with Patrick Haggard, our Associate Scientist, on this fascinating area of research. As a former dancer, I have long been intrigued by the different ways in which people respond to dance. Through this and future research, I hope we'll begin to understand more about the unique ways in which the human body can communicate without words."

Videos are still greatly underutilized as a means of training and education. Videos of college courses on every subject ought to be widely and cheaply available. Surely governments spend enough money funding unversities and schools that some of the teaching that they fund can be recorded and made available for free download. Also, every type of performance training such as ballet and other forms of dance could have training sessions and performances recorded at many angles for use in schools. Then even children in rural areas could pursue types of training that are now accessible only to much more urbanized populations. Such recordings would also be of value to many city dwellers who can not afford expensive lessons. The process of education is still too stuck in old formats of delivery. Education should become as modernized by technology as retail, communications, factories, and transportation devices have bcome.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 22 02:45 PM  Brain Conditioning

TPB, Esq. said at December 22, 2004 7:44 PM:

There's a substantial link, though, between ballet and martial arts. This may be part of what is, as a general rubric, what Howard Gardner would consider "kinetic intelligence." More interesting would be if they had non-athletic - or a random sampling of - individuals who attempted the same feat.

Christo Fogelberg said at December 23, 2004 12:32 PM:

> Videos of college courses on every subject ought to be widely and cheaply available.

Uhhh... I don't know that it's reasonable to so blithely generalise this evidence from spatial/kinetic skills to non-spatial ones... I'm willing to accept the conclusions for the former, but I don't see how watching my calculus professor on a video is going to help me learn or remember better than just studying the notes or practicing myself (the latter actually being the best way I, personally, learn).

A smart utilisation of modern technology in education would I think be the application of AI techniques to a greater extent, so that even while learning independently one can get better feedback than "That was right/wrong".

>Then even children in rural areas could pursue types of training that are now accessible only to much more
>urbanized populations.

Isn't a major thrust of the researchers comments though that it is not just seeing that is sufficient, particularly when you're untrained in the skill? I thought he highlighted the necessity of the person knowing the skill before the benefits of just watching it to practice were visible, and I don't think he drew any conclusions regarding whether or not videos could replace hands-on/one-on-one instruction where you can have a teacher telling you "no, nearly, but you just need to drop your left foot a bit".

Just my 2c on what is definitely an interesting piece of research though :)

Randall Parker said at December 23, 2004 1:17 PM:


Why do people attend lectures in colleges? Because they find it easier to listen to a verbal explanation mixed in with chalkboard notes and diagrams than to learn the same materials from books.

There must be something about how the mind works that makes it easier to listen than to read. Why not take advantage of this? Why not let a person watch 6 different lectures by 6 different people explaining the same basic classical mechanics equations in physics? The late Richard Feynman's lectures in physics at CalTech were considered to be amazing to watch. Why not give everyone access to DVDs of the best minds lecturing on a large range of subjects?

fub said at December 25, 2004 8:06 PM:

Just an anecdotal tidbit that might bolster a general conclusion.

I think the notion that one can develop the mental or cognitive skills to perform an art without the necessary motor skills has some truth to it.

I recall a recent interview (on NPR I believe) with a pianist who had lost use of his right hand at the peak of his performance career in his early 30s. The loss was caused by some sort of neuromuscular problem that caused his hand to contract more or less to a fist.

He continued practicing the left hand reportoire (which is larger than one might think) until his 70s.

Due to some medical advance (Botox injections or something similar as I recall), he regained use of his right hand some 35 years after losing it.

He immediately began working on full reportoire, and after a brief period of gaining muscular strength in his right hand, he was back to his full performance level with right and left hands.

He remarked something like "The brain really plays the music. The hands are just the mechanical instruments."

Garson Poole said at December 25, 2004 11:43 PM:

Randall Parker said: Videos of college courses on every subject ought to be widely and cheaply available.

I agree with this sentiment completely. There is a business that specializes in recording top-notch professors at elite schools and making courses available to all in audio and video formats called "The Teaching Company" at I have listened to several courses and enjoyed them. Although the material is typically not as demanding as actual college-level coursework the lectures are interesting and the communication capabilities of the professors are superior.

I also think inexpensive or free high-quality software for language acquisition should be available. The interactivity of computers can greatly enhance language instruction.

A modern Carnegie-style philanthropist would help. Yet, a profit-making corporation "Google" is planning to make a mother-lode of books available. I suspect that the out-of-copyright books will be free. So some progress is being made in knowledge ubiquity.

don wilkins said at December 26, 2004 11:46 AM:


There are five advantages to your suggestion.

Students would have access to high quality teaching on any topic. This will stimulate interest in topics which they might not see in the normal course of events.

The ability to replay the instruction until you understand it. I know I am a slow learner. Listening to an instructor again amd again helps with the difficult concpets.

Teachers could see how experts teach subjects and could pick up tips/techniques fro improving their own instruction.

Listening and watching improves the vocabulary. I have read ancient Greek history and love it a great deal. Until I was able to watch a video tape I never knew how to pronounce some of the names.

Topics which a school couldn't scehdule a class because thirty students or an instructor is not on the payroll aren't available could still be taught. This would further stimulate students' interest in learning.

I love your idea. Universities would cry about the cost but would it really be that much? If the universities are really clever they could use the DVDs as advertisement for their staff. See what excellent instructors we provide?

The Department of Education could provide a repository and distribution network. They might as well do something useful. Why not a writing campaign to our Senators and Representatives and the President?

I want to ponder what I would send then forward it to you.

I think you have a great idea and I love a day with a great idea in it.

Donald Wilkins

Oliver said at February 1, 2006 12:47 AM:

Has anyone else read about a muscular reaction due to visual recognition of a skill/movement well practiced.
As an example a soccer player would watch another person on tape kicking a free-kick and there would be a reaction in his thigh muscle or in his muscle memory maybe? (if there is such a thing)
Read this someplace but can't remember where, so please help out if you can, thoughts or reflections about this is also very welcome.

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