Why only dancers can do a mental pirouette
Tim Radford, science editor
Wednesday December 22, 2004
When a prima ballerina watches someone perform a pirouette, or a professional footballer watches a player bend it like Beckham, they use parts of the brain not used by amateur watchers.
Researchers used scanning equipment to read the minds of two kinds of trained dancer - 10 from the Royal Ballet and nine who had studied capoeira, a Brazilian-African martial art performed to a Copacabana beat - as they watched performances in dance styles familiar and unfamiliar. They also showed the sequences to 10 non-dancers.
They report in the online journal Cerebral Cortex today that when the experts watched movements they knew well, functional magnetic resonance imaging detected greater activity in the brain's premotor cortex and intraparietal sulcus, the right superior parietal lobe and the left posterior temporal sulcus.
These movement-control areas of the brain store unconscious fluid movements, of the kind carried out by dancers, golfers and athletes, by means of what scientists call a mirror system.
"Dancers always talk about 'body memory'; they have learned to do something 'in their bodies'," said Daniel Glaser, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. "But that is nonsense. They learn it in their brains, the bits of the brain that control their movement.
"But what wasn't clear was that that bit of the brain was also activated when you see movement, and that is the critical insight here. You use your ability to move, your movement-control part of the brain, to help you see better."
The study could help in the rehabilitation of people whose motor skills have been damaged by a stroke, and it suggests that athletes and dancers may be able to train mentally while recovering from injury.
Patrick Haggard of UCL, who is an associate scientist of the Royal Opera House, 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 capoeira 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.
"People's brains appear to respond differently when they are watching a movement, such as a sport, if they can do the moves themselves.
"When we watch a sport, our brain performs an internal simulation of the actions, as if it were sending the same movement instructions to our own body. But for those sports commentators who are ex-athletes, the mirror system is likely to be even more active, because their brains may re-enact the moves they once made. This might explain why they get so excited while watching the game."
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