Are you a sports junkie? Do you love to spend time watching your favorite gymnast or basketball player? Well, the good news is that observing the performance of expertly executed feats could actually help you master those feats yourself, especially if you have some experience!
Scientists have recently discovered that certain brain cells respond both when we do something and when we watch someone else do it. This discovery was first found quite unexpectedly. Researchers were recording brain activity in monkeys when they picked up food. During a break, a researcher reached for food in view of a monkey who was still wired to the electrodes. To everyone’s surprise, the electrodes recorded the same response that the monkey’s brain made when he reached for the food himself. Further trials revealed the same results and the term “mirror neuron” was coined.
What does this mean for humans? A follow up study was done by David Glasser at the University College London during which expert dancers and martial arts athletes were shown short clips of techniques in each field. It was found that the mirror neurons of each group showed the most activity when they were shown clips of the field that they were most expert in (i.e. dancers for dancers and martial arts for martial arts) and that both of these groups showed more brain activity than a control group of untrained individuals. This suggests that our mirror neurons fire depending on previous patterns of movement or skill level that we possess. The more skilled we are at an action, the more the complex motor center of the brain responds to viewing that action.
This may help explain why watching just any sport may not improve your performance in it. For example, if you’ve never skated before, and have a hard time telling a lutz from a toe loop, watching the experts may not help you execute a jump. But on the other hand, if you’ve spent a lot of time practicing tennis and are familiar with the intricacies of forehand, backhand, and lobs, then watching an expert in the field could actually improve your game.
The same could be said for visualization of a skill. Let’s say that you are an aspiring swimmer, with the basics already in your brain. You decide to watch those Olympic race finals and focus on technique of elite athletes. You then take this one step further and practice through visualization, performing the enhanced techniques first in your mind. Your mirror neurons should fire throughout the process and your learning is enhanced. You may be the next Michael Phelps!
These techniques could also help you through rehabilitation after an injury. Initially you are unable to contract your quadriceps after that crash on your bike (and your knee is swollen to twice its normal size). You can get those mirror neurons working by using your other leg, watching as you use the uninjured quads. You can continue to “practice” by viewing expert bike racers, so that when your healing allows, you can be back in the saddle (or out of it, as the case may be).
So, it may actually be okay to be a couch potato, at least for a little bit. Please don’t bother me – I’m training my mirror neurons.
Written by: Linda Sweeny, P.T.
Linda provides physical therapy services at BaySport’s Santa Clara location. She received her degree in physical therapy from Fresno State University. She has extensive experience in the treatment of orthopedic injuries, industrial injuries, and sports related injuries, including musculoskeletal dysfunction of the spine and extremities. She has had a great deal of experience and training in exercise rehabilitation, manual therapy for soft tissue and joint treatment. Linda improves patient functioning with the use of modalities to help put the patient back to his or her previous level of activity. She has practiced physical therapy in a variety of settings, including hospital, outpatient clinic, and sports-related facilities.
Glaser,D E, Grezes, J Passingham RE, and Haggard P (2005). Action observation and acquired motor skills: an IMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral Cortex. 15(8): 1243-9
Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004), “The mirror-neuron system”, Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192, doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230