Monday, December 11, 2006

What Are You Looking At?

Despite a total lack of scientific credentials, I’ve got a part-time gig editing a biotechnology page at

While working on the page, Sam and I came across some interesting research regarding mirror neurons. These neurons fire when a skilled individual performs a physical feat.

They also fire when that same individual witnesses the feat, even if he or she doesn't move.

A couple of Italian researcher-types discovered these neurons through a fortunate accident. They happened to have a monkey hooked up to an EEG when it witnessed one of the investigators reach for a banana. The portion of the monkey’s brain responsible for reaching lit up, although the monkey hadn’t budged. After ruling out a defective EEG, the investigators verified their finding—subsequent actions provoked neurological activity in the absence of movement.

This finding has some profound implications for athletics.

When you learn a skill, neural networks form in your brain. These networks get stronger with practice and repetition—the more you utilize a skill, the stronger the link between the synapses becomes.

If we were to hook you up to an EEG and make you perform a clean and jerk, the portions of your brain responsible for that action would light up. If you then witnessed Dimas do the same thing, we’d see a similar response. In both instances, the "clean and jerk" network is active, improving inter-neuron connection strength.

The implication: You can reinforce and improve a skill through two separate pathways—repetition and observation!

Anecdotally, I can testify to the effects of observation on physical performance. After months of instructing others on the finer points of the Olympic lifts, my own lifts showed a substantial increase in technique. During this period my practice was sporadic at best, but I’d spent hundreds of hours observing and correcting others.

Of course, you won’t develop world-class skills watching tapes of the 2004 Summer Games. You’re actually going to have to go to the gym once in a while.

Many coaches are strong proponents of pre-competition visualization, whereby an athlete envisions an upcoming performance in order to improve that performance. I suspect this practice elicits mirror neuron activity, much like witnessing a live event. I’d love to see an EEG study examining this phenomenon.

Until then, check out this video of Pyrros. I figure you'll all be gold medalists if you watch it enough.

Get cracking.

Picture courtesy of Check out the inspiration for this article, Daniel Glaser's recent study on mirror neuron activity in capoeria practitioners.


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