Human brain

Photo: Ralph-Axel Müller, via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Research suggests that the mirror neuron system may have a bigger impact in developing or improving a previously acquired athletic skill than in learning it just by watching an expert perform it. Calvo-Merino and co-workers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study differences in brain activity between watching an action that one has learned to do and an action that one has not, to assess whether the brain processes of action observation are modulated by the expertise and motor repertoire of the observer. Experts in classical ballet, experts in capoeira and inexpert control subjects viewed videos of ballet or capoeira actions. Greater brain activity was detected when expert dancers viewed movements that they had been trained to perform compared to movements they had not, indicating that the mirror neuron system integrates observed actions of others with an individual’s personal motor repertoire, and suggesting that the human brain understands actions by motor simulation.

Researchers from Japan have shown that the viewer’s identification with the athlete performing the action also influences the level of activation of the mirror neuron system. They measured the activity of motor areas when amateur baseball field players watched short movie clips of scenes in professional baseball games. The subjects were instructed to support either a batter or a pitcher when observing the movie clip. The results showed that activity in the motor area exhibited a strong interaction between the subject’s supported side (batter or pitcher) and the outcome of the action (a hit or an out). When the subject supported the batter, motor area activity was significantly higher when the batter made an out than when he made a hit. However, such modulation was not apparent when the subject supported the pitcher. These findings suggest that the mirror neuron system does not simply internally duplicate the model’s performance but more actively engages in processing (understanding, imitating, learning, empathizing, etc.) of the observed action.


Buccino G, Binkofski F, Riggio L. The mirror neuron system and action recognition. Brain Lang. 89 (2): 370-376, 2004.

Calvo-Merino B, Glaser DE, Grèzes J, Passingham RE, Haggard P. Action observation and acquired motor skills: an FMRI study with expert dancers. Cereb Cortex 15 (8): 1243-1249, 2005.

Gazzaniga MS. Human. The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2008.

Shimada S. Modulation of motor area activity by the outcome for a player during observation of a baseball game. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e8034.

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  1. Nice post Inigo.

    I have been using the Mirror Neuron research for a few years with rugby after first reading about work done with professional ballet dancers.

    We have implemented the concept with injured players to try and decrease losses in skills abilities during their time away from training and playing.

    The other aim of the program has been to then be able to decrease the time it takes to get the players back to full skill level on their return to the game.

    It is a great concept – thanks for discussing it.

    Wayne Goldsmith

    January 1, 2011
  2. Hey Wayne, thank you for your input on some of the possible practical applications of this exciting research area. I am sure this will be a very useful comment for the blog readers. Iñigo

    January 2, 2011
  3. Hello Inigo,

    I am just a PhD student in sport science, and I am also a kickboxing trainer. I think that mirror neurons discovery can explain and help contact sports trainers on different taks during training!
    Hope researchers will be able to find out more, then translate results in a practical applications!

    best regards

    January 14, 2011