Back in 1996, a group of Italian researchers discovered mirror neurons in the premotor area of the brain of macaque monkeys. These neurons fire when a monkey performs an action, but also when a monkey sees another monkey or a human carrying out the same type of action. In other words, these neurons function as a mirror, by activating the same brain areas of the individual actually performing the action. A mirror neuron system has also been found in the human brain, and it is considered that this system was fundamental for the development of intentional communication (e.g. facial expressions, hand gestures) and oral language in humans.
Neuroscientists also speculate that the mirror neuron system is important for learning new skills by imitation, and to understand other people’s actions, emotions and intentions, by activating the same areas in our brains and creating some kind of empathy or emotional link between them and us.
The same cortical network in the premotor cortex is activated when humans watch a finger being lifted and when they lift a finger themeselves, but the mirror neuron system far from being restricted to hand movements has areas corresponding to movements of all body parts. Does this execution-observation matching system involved in action recognition have an impact on skill acquisition and performance in sport?