Recognizing Movement in the Mind's Eye

Dancers' brains reveal the art of imitation, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- An area of the brain that responds to actions we watch, such as the movement of a dancer, reacts differently in people who are skilled at doing the same movement than in other people.

That's the conclusion of a University College London study in the current online issue of Cerebral Cortex.

This finding may help improve rehabilitation methods for stroke patients with damaged motor skills. It also suggests that injured dancers, athletes and others could continue to train mentally while they recover from physical injuries.

Researchers showed videos of ballet and capoiera -- a Brazilian martial arts dance form -- to ballet dancers and capoiera experts. The videos were also shown to people with no skill in ballet or capoiera. While the study subjects watched the videos, their brain activity was monitored using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The ballet dancers and the capoiera experts showed increased activity in a collective area of the brain called the "mirror system" when they watched the videos of their own specialties. The mirror system was more active in ballet dancers when they watched the ballet video, and the same was true when the capoiera experts watched the video of their dance form.

The mirror system in the other study subjects didn't show a preference for either dance style.

It's believed the mirror system plays an important role in helping humans understand other people's actions and it may also help us learn how to imitate the movements of others, the researchers said.

"We've shown that the mirror system is finely tuned to an individual's skills. A professional ballet dancer's brain will understand a ballet move in a way that a capoiera expert's brain will not. Our findings suggest that once the brain has learned a skill, it may simulate the skill without even moving, through simple observation," Patrick Haggard, of the university's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said in a prepared statement.

"An injured dancer might be able to maintain their skill despite being temporarily unable to move, simply by watching others dance. This concept could be used both during sports training and in maintaining and restoring movement ability in people who are injured," Haggard said.

More information

The American Heart Association has information about the effects of stroke.

SOURCE: University College London, news release, Dec. 21, 2004
Consumer News