Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Senses: "Monkey See Monkey Do" Neurons

I found myself going from listening to an Australia Broadcasting Company program about the brain, movement, and dancers, to thinking that contrary to my expectations watching sports may be a cerebral activity.

It started with an episode of All in The Mind called The Dancing Mind. I don't think the audio of the episode is online. It helps to hear the conversation happening but we do get a complete transcript. So all is not lost. It's an eye opening read.

How did I get from The Dancing Mind to the cerebral nature of watching sports? Follow along and see.

Ever find yourself tilting and weaving with the action on television? Do you have a visceral reaction when watching dancers or acrobats? Do you jump out of your chair while watching sports? Especially sports you play yourself?

Maybe you get to blame your brain.

In school we're told we have five senses. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. The senses are used to introduce us to how we understand the world. It can lead students towards science and an understanding of the world around them. We're told the senses are how we perceive the world around us.

Like many things we're taught in school that's a grand oversimplification. We don't just have five senses and we perceive more than the world around us.

Our world includes ourselves. We have senses that help us perceive ourselves and our place in the world. We have the senses of equilibrioception and proprioception to help us understand our place and ourselves.

Here's an snippet from Jerome K Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat on how some people don't admit they can sense their place in the world.
It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick - on land. At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick. Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.
We get seasick (sorry... sea-sick to borrow Jerome's spelling from 1889) when the world around us moves in ways we don't expect. We expect gravity to pull us straight down. We can sense it. We can also sense turning and acceleration. Balance and acceleration makes up the sense of equilibrioception.

If you close your eyes you can lift your arm without looking at it. You can touch your nose with your eyes closed. You know where your limbs are without staring at them. Imagine trying to walk if you had to look at your legs. Body awareness is the sense of proprioception. Sometimes also called the kinesthetic sense.

The kinesthetic sense is an interesting one. Our ability to understand the position of our bodies and the ability to coordinate complex actions is amazing. We can move from consciously thinking about our actions to making them automatic. We can perform complex tasks "without thinking". The term is muscle memory. It's why you can type without thinking of each key or drive a car without coordinating your feet on the pedals consciously. It's how we walk and run without working out each step in advance. It takes a while to learn. Just watch infants work out how to go from rugrats to toddlers.

It turns out research into muscle memory has found something quite interesting. When monkeys performed a task (picking up peanuts) certain neurons in their brains became active. When the monkeys watched another monkey picking up peanuts the same neurons became active. They acted out the task in their own mind while they watched it.

Hence the name "Monkey See Monkey Do" Neurons. It turns out we humans have the same sort of reactions to watching actions. The Dancing Mind covers this concept within the mind of dancers. Dancers who are injured may even be able to 'rehearse' mentally by watching the routines they will perform when they are healed. They can dance along within their mind.

Which may be why watching sports is so visceral. Why watching a dancer can make us feel like we're moving. It certainly helps understand why being in the audience of a physical spectacle is so satisfying. It turns out it really is a cerebral experience to watch a sport.


Janet said...

hey, I can get sea sick in 3D movies, but I'm talented

Ohh, I'm way behind on my All In the Mind podcasts, so I haven't heard this episode (I love that show).

They had a show a while back about how to get a... think it was an MRI, or FMRI... to communicate. Even if you just think about something like walking though your house, or playing tennis your brain activates those different areas. So you don't even need to see others doing it!

They have found at least one patient that is in a vegetative state that exhibits no outwards signs of having brain function... but they can get him to answer yes/no questions in the MRI by asking him to play tennis for Yes or walk though his house for No.

I'm sure I may be mixing up the details, but it was cool and scary all at the same time. I love tech, but I don't know if I want it to read my mind. And being trapped inside my own head is a scary enough thought by itself!!!

Anonymous said...

nice article, keep the posts coming