With Olympic Games in Rio now only 3 short weeks away, excitement and anticipation is immensely growing. Athletes and fans alike are becoming eager to see the world’s greatest set records, win medals, achieve greatness and realize dreams. If you are an athlete of any age and any level, you can improve your own sport performance simply by watching the best in the world compete on the Olympic stage!
Thanks to the section of the brain called the premotor cortex, and specifically the neurons that reside in that section, we can sneak in some extra training while we sit back, relax and watch the Olympians achieve greatness. Approximately one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when you perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action. This means that to the brain, there is absolutely no difference between performing an action and watching someone else perform that action (Figure 1). This subset of motor neurons that respond to the actions of others as if they were our own are called “mirror neurons” and they seem to encode a complete archive of all the muscle movements we learn to execute over the course of our lives, from the first smile and finger wag to a flawless triple toe loop.
There are two types of mirror neurons, strictly congruent and broadly congruent. Strictly congruent mirror neurons fire at the sight of an action that exactly matches one in the spectator’s motor repertoire, while broadly congruent fire at observed actions that are similar to ones you have performed. So if you are watching someone take a free throw and you have never played basketball, your strictly congruent mirror neurons will not fire, but the broadly congruent ones that remember tossing a crumpled piece of paper into a garbage can will. This creates a sliding scale of mirror neuron responses among spectators based on their real-life sports experience, which means that in order to improve your own sport performance by watching the Olympics, you must watch the sport that you compete in.
Motor neurons do not enable a gymnast watching swimming to be able to dive into a pool and to swim with the technique and speed of the Olympians she watched. In fact, a gymnast watching swimming will most likely not even have any broadly congruent neurons fire since the muscle movements of a swimmer do not resemble those muscle movements required of a gymnast. However a gymnast watching diving would likely have both types of mirror neurons fire, since many of the muscle movements required for diving and gymnastics are the same. A gymnast watching gymnastics would reap the greatest amount of benefit, as she would have both types firing along with the muscle memory for the specific skills. When we see a familiar action, our mirror neurons activate, and their firing lasts exactly as long as the observed action. Therefore, the more familiar the action, the stronger the neuron activation and the more our sport performance will benefit.
Since the brain interprets execution of an action and observation of an action as the same thing, simply watching your sport can strengthen the cognitive pathways for the execution of sport specific skills and movements. As cognitive pathways become stronger, the skills become easier and improved. So count watching your sport during the Rio Olympics as part of your training, but be sure to get off the couch and pair it with some physical execution and try to mirror your sport idols.
Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). “The mirror-neuron system” (PDF). Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (1): 169–192.
Keysers, Christian (2010). “Mirror Neurons”. Current Biology 19 (21): R971–973.
acoboni, Marco; Woods, Roger P.; Brass, Marcel; Bekkering, Harold; Mazziotta, John C.; Rizzolatti, Giacomo (1999). “Cortical Mechanisms of Human Imitation”. Science 286 (5449): 2526–2528.