Mirror Neurons - Can You Get Better at Sports by Just Watching?

Roger Federer playing in Cincinatti
Image via Wikipedia

The last post was about improving coordination by just imagining movement.  The basic idea is that imagining the performance of a skill will activate almost the exact same neural pathways as actually performing it, so that you can better at something purely by visualization.  This post takes the same idea a little further by asking whether we can become more skilled at movement simply by watching someone else with better skills.  This post is partially inspired by comments on the previous post by Peter, who noted that he improved his improvisational piano skills significantly during a time in his life when he wasn't playing piano but was watching jazz greats up close.  I have personally had the experience of getting better at squash or tennis just by watching professionals play in person.  Maybe these experiences can be explained by a very trendy and possibly profound new discovery in neuroscience called mirror neurons, so here's some info on them.

In the 1990s, some Italian scientists hooked up some wires to some monkeys and found that the same group of neurons would fire when the monkey made a certain motion AND when the monkeys watched someone else make the same motion.  Several hotshot neuroscientists such as V.S. Ramachandran speculated that these "mirror neurons" may be such a profound and important discovery that they will unlock the greatest mysteries of the human mind.  Wow.

Several functions for mirror neurons have been proposed.  First is learning by imitation.  Babies start imitating movement as soon as they are capable.  For example, two day old babies will stick their tongue out if you do. They probably learn speech, facial expressions and other social body language cues by a similar process.

Another useful function for mirror neurons is allowing you to predict the consequences of an action before you perform it.  If you imagine a movement before it happens, you can run a little virtual movie of the motion in your mind through the mirror neurons, evaluate the predicted result, and then change your plan accordingly.

Most interestingly, we can use our mirror neurons as a way to feel what others are feeling.  For example, if you see someone crying, your neurons which control your motor pattern for crying will light up.  These neurons are of course connected to the neurons which control the emotions that are related to crying, and you will then in some sense feel what the other person is feeling.  This is the basis of empathy, and it probably explains an amazing amount of strange human behavior such as getting very excited at sports events, or feeling alternatingly happy, sad, and then happy at a romantic comedy when the boy gets girl, loses girl and then gets girl back.

Back to the main point about whether mirror neurons could help us get better at a sport just by watching an expert play.  I'm not aware of any specific research on this issue, but there is at least one experiment that sheds some light.  Daniel Glaser asked some capoeira and ballet dancers to watch other ballet dancers and capoiera dancers while he hooked up some wires to their brains.  He found that the dancers had substantial activity in the part of the brain that controlled dancing when watching the form of dance they performed.  In other words, when ballet dancers watched other ballet dancers, their mirror neurons lit up - when they watched the capoiera dancers ... not so much.  The opposite was true for the capoeira dancers.

This would suggest that watching an expert play a sport will only help you if you already have some degree of experience in regard to what they are doing.  This squares with common sense.  I have never done a back flip on a balance beam,  and I don't think I would have any better chance of avoiding breaking my neck by watching someone else do it first.  I don't have any motor maps for this activity in my brain whatsoever, so there is nothing to light up when I watch someone else.  However, I have played a lot of tennis, and do have many neurons in my brain devoted to hitting forehands and backhands.  If I see Roger Federer hit some balls, these neurons fire, and I can in some sense "feel" his movements in my body.  I can even in some sense feel what it would be like to do it better.  And I really feel like I play a little better afterwards.  Similarly, if I watch someone hacking away at balls in an awkward manner, its tough to watch.  Ouch.

So why do we like to watch sports that we have never played?  Even though we might not be able to "feel" the beauty and power of the physical moves, there are some universal emotions that we can feel, such as the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.  This makes watching the game enjoyable, but not necessarily a way to get better at the game.

Further, even if you have played the game, if you are watching a player whose skill is so far above your own that its really not even the same recognizable sport, then watching probaby won't help much.  This is because the techniques are so different that you simply can't relate.  I find this happens when I watch pro soccer players.  I have played a lot of soccer, but I have never struck a ball in a way that would cause the ball to sail into the goal from forty yards out.  When I see someone do this, I just can't relate.

One final point is that, in my experience, watching a game live is a very different experience from watching on t.v. in terms of "feeling" what the players are doing.  In other words, watching great tennis or squash players live seems to have a huge effect on my game, whereas watching on t.v. seems to do little.  Its almost like greatness is in the air and you can attain it by osmosis.  The take home point is that it doesn't hurt to be around experts - some of the magic might just rub off.

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