Passive Learning Imprints On The Brain Just Like Active Learning
It’s conventional wisdom that practice makes perfect. But if practicing only consists of watching, rather than doing, does that advance proficiency? Yes, according to a study by Dartmouth researchers. They determined that people can acquire motor skills through the “seeing” as well as the “doing” form of learning.
A view of the left hemisphere of the brain (with the left part of the image being the forward part of the brain) illustrating the Action Observance Network regions. (Credit: Image courtesy Emily Cross)
“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,” says Emily Cross, the principal investigator and PhD student at Dartmouth. Cross, who earned her degree in June, is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
Cross and her collaborators 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 researchers measured the skill level of participants for sequences that were actively rehearsed daily, and a different set of sequences that were passively observed for an equivalent amount of time. Brain activity when watching both kinds of sequences (as well as a third set of sequences that were entirely unfamiliar) was captured using fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. 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,” says Cross, “and there was common AON activity when watching the practiced and observed dance sequences.”
This research contributes to a growing body of study about how people learn and how best to help people with brain injuries. Cross explains 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.
Cerebral Cortex Advance Access published online on May 30, 2008
Sensitivity of the Action Observation Network to Physical and Observational Learning.
Emily S. Cross, David J. M. Kraemer, Antonia F. de C. Hamilton4, William M. Kelley and Scott T. Grafton
Human motor skills can be acquired by observation without the benefit of immediate physical practice. The current study tested if physical rehearsal and observational learning share common neural substrates within an action observation network (AON) including premotor and inferior parietal regions, that is, areas activated both for execution and observation of similar actions. Participants trained for 5 days on dance sequences set to music videos. Each day they physically rehearsed one set of dance sequences (“danced”), and passively watched a different set of sequences (“watched”). Functional magnetic resonance imaging was obtained prior to and immediately following the 5 days of training. After training, a subset of the AON showed a degree of common activity for observational and physical learning. Activity in these premotor and parietal regions was sustained during observation of sequences that were danced or watched, but declined for unfamiliar sequences relative to the pretraining scan session. These imaging data demonstrate the emergence of action resonance processes in the human brain based on observational learning without physical practice and identify commonalities in the neural substrates for physical and observational learning.