Titled "Sensitivity of the Action Observation Network to Physical and Observational Learning," the study determined that people can acquire motor skills through the "seeing" as well as the "doing" form of learning.
"It's been established in previous research that there are correlations in behavioral performance between active and passive learning, but in this study we were surprised by the remarkable similarity in brain activation when our research participants observed dance sequences that were actively or passively experienced," said Emily Cross, the principal investigator and PhD student at Dartmouth.
In the study, the researchers used a video game where players have to move in a particular sequence to match the position of arrows on the screen, similar to the popular Dance Dance Revolution game. The skill level of participants was then measured for sequences that were actively rehearsed daily, and a different set of sequences that were passively observed for an equivalent amount of time.
The researchers used fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging to capture the brain activity when watching both kinds of sequences (as well as a third set of sequences that were entirely unfamiliar).
The study focused on the Action Observance Network (AON) in the brain, a group of neural regions found mostly in the inferior parietal and premotor cortices of the brain (near the top of the head) responsible for motor skills and some memory functions.
"We collected fMRI data before and after five days of both visual and physical training, and there was common AON activity when watching the practiced and observed dance sequences," said Cross.
The study provides new insights into how people learn and how best to help people with brain injuries. Cross explained that future studies might consider how such overlap between physical and observational learning at the brain level can improve upon rehabilitation therapies for individuals affected by physical or neurological injury.
The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in May 2008.