Observing leads to a different type of learning than acting, being more verbal and strategic

** This article was initially written by Nicole Ong for Outreach 

If someone informed you that learning a skill through demonstration was no different from learning by physically performing the skill itself, your first reaction to this news might be suspicion and/or disbelief. However, this piece of information would seem more plausible if you were aware of developments in neurophysiology pertaining to the discovery of “mirror neurons”, first in macaque monkeys then subsequently in the human brain.

A multitude of studies have since shown that a circuitry of cortical neurons normally activated during physical movement is also activated during movement observation (thus the name “mirror neurons”), leading to suggestions that observation is ‘hidden’ action and that similar processes are involved during observational practice and physical practice.

The study

In the present study, we set out to determine if observational practice would lead to the same outcomes as physical practice in an aiming task where visual feedback was incongruent with actual hand movement (like moving in a virtual environment where your hand appears in a different place to where it actually is). We reasoned that if these outcomes were similar for both observational practice and physical practice, this would reinforce notions of similarity/equivalency stemming from mirror-neuron research.

Results

Contrary to these postulations, we did not find the same outcomes in observers as in actors who physically practised. While observers seemed to acquire “better” (i.e. more accurate) explicit knowledge of the task and how to aim accurately in the new environment, they did not carry this learning over to conditions that probed more implicit/automatic planning processes, as did the actors.

Implications

The implication for practitioners and learners is that observational practice is useful for acquiring conscious, verbally-accessible knowledge about skill performance in a quick, timely manner. However, it may not promote more automatic processes that underlie skilled performance, usually requiring extended amounts of physical practice.

Hence, although observational practice can promote speedy skill acquisition in the initial stage of learning and may also serve a motivating role in early learning, it is not a substitute for physical practice in achieving skilled performance.

Reference

Ong, N. T., & Hodges, N. J. (2010). Absence of after-effects for observers after watching a visuomotor adaptation. Experimental brain research205(3), 325-334.

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