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Watching With Intent to Repeat Ignites Key Learning Area of Brain

Watch and learn. Experience says it works, but how? University of Oregon researchers have seen the light, by imaging the brain, while test subjects watched films of// others building objects with Tinker Toys.

As detailed in the Dec. 20 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, found that when a person watches someone else perform a task with the intention of later replicating the observed performance, motor areas of the brain are activated in a fashion similar to that with accompanies actual movement.

“We’ve been looking at the process of motor learning through observation in the context of procedures,” said principal investigator Scott H. Frey, professor of psychology and director of the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging at the University of Oregon. Frey’s interest is geared toward improvements in rehabilitation for individuals suffering brain or bodily injury.

“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,” he said.

In the experiment, 19 college-aged, healthy adults watched a series of digital videos of another person putting together or disassembling objects using six toy parts. In one condition, participants simply watched the activity; in another, they observed clips with the intention to be able to reproduce the actions in the correct sequential order minutes later.

Despite lying completely still during these tasks, observing with the intention to learn actions and subsequently reproduce them engages areas of the brain known to contribute to motor learning thorough actual physical practice. In particular,
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