The benefits of watching

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The benefits of watching
process: top pic: photo showing hand cutting paper with scissors, captioned with "watch video" middle pic: photo showing hand cutting paper with scissors, captioned with "practice" bottom pic: photo showing hand using a gripper, captioned with 'improve strength and dexterity'
Credit: Whyfiles, bottom image: Eifer.

Here’s good news for the YouTube era: doing a simple task after you watch somebody else do it in a video can improve hand strength and dexterity much more than doing that task after watching an unrelated video.

Most oddly, the benefit appears in tests that have nothing to do with the activity you just performed.

In a study released this week, neuroscientists from Italy asked two groups of volunteers to practice simple, everyday activities like handling money, cutting with scissors or swinging a hammer.

There was one crucial difference: before doing the activity, the test group watched a video of somebody doing that action. The control group watched a scenic video. Later, they were tested for hand strength and dexterity, but not for their hammering or scissoring ability.

After this routine had gone on five days a week for two weeks, Paolo Preziosa and Massimo Filippi, at the Institute of Experimental Neurology at the University of San Raffaele, Italy, used an instrument to measure hand strength. They assessed dexterity by measuring the speed of finger tapping and having subjects quickly stick pieces of wood into holes in a board.

The test is used to measure motor skills in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients.

It’s getting better

The results were a bit surprising. Both groups gained strength and dexterity, but the improvement was 11 times greater among the test group.

When the researchers placed the subjects inside an MR scanner after the two-week study, both groups showed expansion in some parts of the brain networks that control motor function. Those who saw the training videos, however, had more enlargement.

Other areas related to movement, however, shrank in the training-video group. That seemed odd, but Preziosa suggests it’s another aspect of learning. “When you start performing a motor task, you are not able to perform it well, but with learning, you improve your performance and need a smaller number of regions to perform that task.”

Experimental subjects saw either a training film (left) or an environmental film (right), and then performed specific actions, five days a week. After two weeks, hand strength and dexterity had improved among the people who saw the training film. The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, starting April 26.
Credit: Paolo Preziosa and Massimo Filippi, University of San Raffaele

The difficult we do today… the impossible tomorrow!

If your eyes have been glued to airborne Olympic snowboarders or fluid ice dancers, you know they can do what mortals cannot. Paradoxically, with learning, these seemingly impossible movements take less effort even as they grow more fluid. “When the performance is more accurate and precise, you need to activate smaller brain regions,” Preziosa says.

We still wondered how simply seeing something could have such impact on the brain. After all, the control group performed exactly the same tasks as the test group…

The answer may lie in “mirror neurons,” a phenomenon that was recognized about 20 years ago. Briefly, if I am a snowboarder and I see you perform a backside 1080 with a triple shenanigan, the nerve cells in my brain that I’d use to make that moxie move are also activated. They “mirror” the action I see.

a man protruding his tongue in left photo and a baby macaque imitating the behavior in right photo.
Mirror neurons are thought to play a role in understanding the behavior of other animals, as shown here when a newborn macaque monkey imitates a person making a rude expression.

A real payoff?

Preziosa hopes that mirror neurons may offer a benefit to people with MS and other neuro-muscular disorders. “We are trying to assess whether, in a very easy way, we can use these mirror neurons to improve performance.”

The study received funds from the Italian Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. In a subsequent study, Filippi and Preziosa hope to explore whether this approach to rehabilitation could benefit patients with MS and other movement disorders.

If it works, the strategy has advantages: It would require only common equipment like an Internet-linked computer, and could be dialed in to suit the patient’s ability. “Our main aim was to perform these tasks as a possible new rehabilitation program for MS patients with impairment of the hand,” says Preziosa. “What we think of common, easy tasks are not so easy for them. We want to improve the ability to perform these activities, to improve the quality of life.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Yilang Peng, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive