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Merely by Watching Others Learn, We Learn Complex Muscle Movements

April 6, 2005 -- People learn complex muscle movements merely by watching others learn, researchers find.

That's pretty amazing. Even more astonishing is the finding that you might unconsciously learn these complex skills without knowing it, suggest Andrew A.G. Mattar and Paul L. Gribble of the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

How is this possible? Learning complex muscle movements -- riding a bicycle, for example -- means learning to move in a coordinated fashion. Your brain makes a "map" of the way your body has to move -- and of how the environment affects your body's movements.

Actually learning to ride a bicycle imprints these maps on our brain. But we can get a head start on this process if we watch someone else learn, Mattar and Gribble suggest.

"When we observe the actions of others, we activate the same [brain] circuitry responsible for planning and executing our own actions," they write in the April 7 issue of Neuron. "By observing another individual learning to move accurately in a novel mechanical environment, observers move more accurately themselves."

Motor Skills Learning: Attention Not Required

Mattar and Gribble enlisted 84 university students in their experiments. Their experimental apparatus consisted of a handle that moved a mechanical arm to guide an on-screen cursor to targets. The students performed 96 muscle movements with the device. For their next task, the students had to perform the same muscle movements, but this time the machine fought them by making them overcome a clockwise force on the mechanical arm.

Before the second task, some of the students watched a video of other students learning to overcome the clockwise force. Other students did not see the video. Still others watched a video of students fighting a counterclockwise force, which required a different set of muscle movements.

Sure enough, those who watched others learn the task did better than those who did not. And those who watched students learning the wrong task had a much harder time than those who watched nothing at all.

In a second experiment, the researchers distracted the students who were watching the video by making them do arithmetic. It didn't matter; they still learned the motor skills by watching the video.

"Motor learning by observing may occur unbeknownst to the subject," Mattar and Gribble suggest.

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