Researchers Explain How We Learn by Observation
A recent brain imaging study helps explain how we learn to copy actions through observation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of participants’ brains, while they watched someone else perform a task, suggests that areas of the brain are used in a similar way to when the person is actually moving.
One of the most recently developed forms of neuroimaging, fMRI allows the observation of neural activity in the brain by tracking changes in the blood flow to neurons.
Dr. Scott Frey of the University of Oregon and his team took fMRI scans of the brain while 19 college-aged, healthy participants watched films of other people building or taking apart objects using parts of Tinker Toys.
“We’ve been looking at the process of motor learning through observation in the context of procedures,” Dr. Frey said. “Teaching a physical skill often involves someone demonstrating the essential action components after which the learner tries to reproduce what has been observed.
“This is true for behaviors ranging from learning to eat with utensils, playing an instrument or performing surgery. We wanted to know how the brain takes what is seen and translates it into a motor program for guiding skilled movements.”
In the study, brain scans of those simply watching were compared against scans from those planning to copy the actions in the correct order afterwards. Dr. Frey found that observing with the intention to copy used parts of the brain that also are used when learning by physically doing the activity. The participants’ accuracy in reproducing the actions a few minutes later was predicted by the amount of activity in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), which is in the parietal lobe. This backs up previous findings that the IPS is involved in the processing of others’ intentions.
When the participants were asked to watch a film and copy the actions, but not necessarily in the same order, activity in these brain regions increased to a lesser extent. Dr. Frey believes that activity in the IPS may act as a “thermometer” to show how well a person is translating what they are seeing into plans for action.
“What appears vital is the intention of the observer, rather than simply the visual stimulus that is being viewed,” he said. “If the goal is to be able to do what you are seeing, then it appears that activity through your motor system is up-regulated substantially. This could prove important as a means of facilitating rehabilitation of individuals with movement impairments or paralyses.”