Beatriz Calvo-Merino and researchers from University College London have been investigating how the brain understands other people’s movements with the help of professional ballet dancers and experts in capoeira.
It is thought that the human brain has a ‘mirror system’, that simulates the actions of others as we observe them. This might be the basis of a number of important skills such as observational learning and communication.
This system seems particularly tuned to biological motion, as it doesn’t seem to activate when mechanical motion is viewed, or, for example, when an obviously artificial hand is watched while it moves.
Calvo-Merino used the brain scanning technique fMRI to investigate whether the mirror system of expert dancers would react differently when watching their own dance style, when compared to a dance style they didn’t know.
They found that when dancers viewed moves which they were expert in, their brains were more active in areas associated with action planning, body image, motion perception and, unexpectedly, and reward and social behaviour.
The results suggest that the mirror system is involved in understanding the movement of others by combining it with our own repertoire of skills and experience, and that this may be a crucial part of our social interaction.