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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Why 'watch and learn' does work
Image of golfer Tiger Woods
Watching a pro can help improve your golf swing
Scientists say they know why people can learn a new dance routine or how to get a better golf swing by watching others.

Observing the actions of another sets off the same brain circuits responsible for planning and carrying out our own actions, the study authors found.

Experts said the findings, published in Neuron, might aid the treatment of movement disorders.

This could include children with a condition called dyspraxia who have difficulty with motor co-ordination.

The University of Western Ontario team devised a motor task where a person had to manipulate a robotic device to move a cursor on a screen.

It opens up the way for research looking at dealing with movement disorders
Professor Faraneh Vargha-Khadem from Great Ormond Street Hospital

They asked volunteers to watch a video of a person learning how to perform the task.

Compared with volunteers who did not watch the video, those who watched the person learning the task were better at performing the tasks themselves as a result.

Watch and learn

The researchers checked that the viewers had not been covertly practising the task while watching the video by recording the volunteers' arm muscle activity during the viewing.

They also tested whether the learning process was conscious by distracting the subjects during the video viewing - the volunteers were asked to do simple arithmetic sums in their head, for example.

This distraction did not change the motor learning benefit from watching the video.

Professor Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: "It's an interesting study. It certainly does open up the way for research looking at dealing with movement disorders."

Michele Lee, chartered physiotherapist and vice-chair of the Dyspraxia Foundation, said: "From a children's perspective, if they observe a peer doing an activity, normally they will copy.

"It is considered that a child has to learn for themselves which movements are useful. After practising those movements they become established."

"With a dyspraxic child, they will see another child doing something but will not necessarily be able to do it themselves just by watching it.

"You might have to break down the skills into very simple components and build up from there. They have problems with organising, planning and remembering movements."

She said understanding better how motor skills are learned might, in turn, help with treating motor skill disorders such as dyspraxia.

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