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Mind your mirror neurones

By Noigroup HQ Science and the world 26 Nov 2013

Following on from English Noister Tim Beames’s post about the Aussie Ashes team needing a break we fast forward to those in the baggy green celebrating a day early having skittled the English.

The inevitable post-loss analysis will now take place with the English eleven and their support staff dissecting the game and trying to work out where it all went so wrong.  Part of this dissection will surely involve watching the worst bits (for the English!) over and over again. Video analysis of each dismissal trying to spot problems with technique and style will likely take place, probably in excruciatingly slow motion, with the batsmen reliving the dismay of those moments. But, given what we now know about mirror neurones, could this approach to performance improvement be more hindrance than help?

Using fMRI, Calvo-Merino et al (2005) found that when expert dancers watched the style of dancing that they were familiar with there was greater activation in premotor cortex and other brain areas compared with watching a different style of dance and compared with inexpert controls.

Consider this from their discussion:
“Our results show that the brain’s response to seeing an action is influenced by the acquired motor skills of the observer. Subjects showed stronger BOLD [fMRI response] responses in classical mirror areas (Grèzes and Decety, 2001Rizzolatti et al., 2001), including the premotor, parietal cortices and STS, when they observed dance actions that were in their personal motor repertoire than when they observed kinematically comparable dance actions that were not in their repertoire….  Thus, while all groups saw the same stimuli, the mirror areas of their brains responded to the stimuli in a way that depended on the observer’s specific motor expertise.”

This suggests that for the expert English batsmen, watching their own mistakes (or watching the ball scream past their nose or thud into their body) will effectively recruit numerous mirror neroune groups and quite likely run some rich, contextual and highly emotive neurotags (“getting out” neurotags?) over and over again.

Imagine what might happen if the whole team sat down to watch as their fellow batsmen “get out” over and over – even those batsmen who performed well will be getting a good synaptic workout as mirror regions are recruited to run the “getting caught behind off an outside edge from a Mitchell Johnson screamer” neurotag. Perhaps the English cricketers would be better served instead by watching themselves smash the Aussie bowlers all over the park back in July – might this be putting their mirror neurones to better use?

Calvo- Merino B, Glaser DE, Grezes J and Haggard P 2005. Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers. Cerebral Cortex 15(8): 1243-1249

PS: Please don’t pass this on to the English cricket team.

What are your thoughts?  Let us know in the comments below

Tim Cocks


  1. timbeames0noi

    Hi Tim – what a lovely sporting illustration, “a Mitchell Johnson screamer”!!

    One sad impact from this humiliating defeat was the loss of England’s Jonathan Trott due to a stress-related issue. Some positives to come from this are the headlines and analysis this topic has received:

    “Fun turns to fear for Jonathan Trott”
    “A perfectionist who found failure hard to take”
    “he’s definitely made the right decision to take some time off”

    Everyone needs a break, right?


  2. Updating our non cricket playing readers – Australia has lost to the English for the best part of a decade (“plus they call us convicts!”). We have just had an unlikely victory which has mirrored happily through society. Other teams and players in sports unrelated to cricket are even starting to win again!.

    It’s delicious how neuroscience often suggests or demonstrates that the intuitive may not be the best approach – illusions are a great example. In sport it seem so right to look at the bad bits repeatedly and even get the whole team to look in case they see some bad bits that no one else saw.
    Maybe the best thing is to replay and watch the bad bits in solitary or with one or two others, extract the information necessary to correct what is needed and then go back and watch some really good stuff.

    This discussion relates to the treatment of highly sensitive people. Watching movement (action observation) can be a part of the graded motor imagery process, but this component clearly can be carefully graded as well. Watching a painful body part and/or that part in action can hurt – the part may need to be observed in non threatening activity first ?


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