One of the things that sets human beings apart is our ability to learn from each other. I can watch you do something, remember it, and then use that technique or skill later for my own benefit. We take this as trivial, but the ease with which we watch, process and recreate others’ actions has profound consequences, and not just for athletes. Athletes do this sort of thing all the time–they become experts at watching the actions of others and then assimilating those movements, strategies and skills into their own competitive arsenals.
In a study on competitive basektball players, the athletes, when compared with journalists and even coaches who had had similar experience with watching basketball, were better at watching a video of someone shooting and then predicting whether the shot would go in. The athletes could even recognize whether the shot was going to be successful before the shot left a player’s hands. Even more, both the athletes and the observers showed increased activity in the specific brain areas associated with the motor skills involved in shooting, while they watched the video.
What we’re observing here are “mirror neurons”, neurons that are activated both when you do something, as well as when you watch something, so they effectively act as a mirror for the observed action. Mirror neurons are a white-hot topic in neuroscience right now, and have been put forward as potentially being integral to our ability to learn skills via imitation, use language as a communicative tool, and sense what others are thinking and feeling (“theory of mind”). But exactly how mirror neurons work, and what skills or abilities they are involved with, are still a matter of active debate. But the evidence is building, and mirror neurons have recently been directly observed in the lab. This study at UCLA not only observed mirror neurons, but also found a subset of brain cells that appeared to actually inhibit activity, possibly to stop the subjects from actually carrying out the task that they were watching, and that their mirror neurons were imitating:
The researchers recorded both single cells and multiple-cell activity, not only in motor regions of the brain where mirror neurons were thought to exist but also in regions involved in vision and in memory.
Further, they showed that specific subsets of mirror cells increased their activity during the execution of an action but decreased their activity when an action was only being observed.
“We hypothesize that the decreased activity from the cells when observing an action may be to inhibit the observer from automatically performing that same action,” said Mukamel, the study’s lead author. “Furthermore, this subset of mirror neurons may help us distinguish the actions of other people from our own actions.”
If what many neuroscientists believe about mirror neurons is correct, these special cells might be behind the reason why we love watching sports so much. Because any action that we watch may be mirrored, and in some sense acted out, inside of our own brains. So Every time we see Kevin Durant or Lebron James do something amazing, a little piece of our brain feels like it’s doing something amazing, too.
Bonus: For more on mirror neurons, watch neuroscientist VS Rachmachandran’s TED talk. He does a far better job of explaining mirror neurons and their importance than I can.