Women in Science: Exploring the exquisite choreography between action and perception in the human brain

dance 300x194 Women in Science: Exploring the exquisite choreography between action and perception in the human brain

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Dr Emily Cross is a senior lecturer at Bangor University in Wales where she co-directs the Social Brain in Action cognitive neuroscience laboratory. As a trained dancer, she is interested in the remarkable plasticity of the human brain to learn highly-skilled and complex movement, as well as how and why observers derive pleasure from watching certain actions. Emily took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work and to help promote the role of women in science.

Think back to when you first learned to drive a car; the idea of getting behind the steering wheel and maneuvering a two-ton machine of glass and steel down a motorway at high speeds was probably mildly terrifying. Learning how to shift gears, operate the clutch when stopped on a hill and negotiate your way through traffic was challenging enough, but you also had to learn how to adapt these actions to the driving rain, thick fog, or snow. As we gain experience as drivers, these tasks become easier. However, the fact remains that an action as mundane as driving to work requires the brain and body to make countless calculations involving what we see in the world around us and how to move our hands, feet, and head in response to safely navigate to our destination.

The ability of humans to effortlessly link what we see in the world around us (perception) with how we move our bodies to respond (action) is a question I find endlessly fascinating and forms the foundation of my research. My interest in how our brains link perception with action initially stemmed from my background as a dancer. Studying the brain during the day and performing during the evenings, I came to realise that combining neuroscience and dance offered a unique opportunity to look at how complex and sometimes rather unfamiliar actions are learned (rather than the much simpler actions that many cognitive neuroscientists look at, like tapping one or two fingers).

It turns out that research performed nearly two decades ago with monkeys has significantly illuminated how our brains negotiate this link between perception and action. The origin of this ability might be so-called “mirror neurons”, which were first discovered within the brains of monkeys. The original researchers discovered that particular neurons responded in a similar manner when the monkey performed an action, such as grasping a raisin, and also when the monkey watched another monkey perform the same action (hence the name “mirror” neurons).

These neurons thus appear to create a network that matches observation of actions with execution of those same actions. The discovery of such neurons, as well as the resulting explosion of research with humans showing that similar processes are at play within the human brain have prompted researchers to propose that action perception and production are intimately connected. If you’re asking yourself at this stage, “well, so what?” the exciting suggestion that followed on from this discovery is that we use our own action experience to perceive and make sense of other people’s behaviour.

I am interested in how one’s own experience of performing actions shapes the neural links between action and perception. Because of my background in dance, I train people to perform complex actions (such as dance sequences) and then scan their brains as they watch those actions being performed. With my interest in complex action learning and expertise, I have been able to draw upon a diverse range of actions beyond just dance, including gymnastics, contortion, and rock climbing. What my colleagues and I have been finding is that a high level of expertise with performing an action (such as the company of expert modern dancers, whose brains we scanned once a week across six consecutive weeks as they learned new choreography) fundamentally impacts how the brain responds when simply watching a familiar action that can be expertly performed.

In addition to measuring how action expertise shapes perception, we are also interested in how we learn via observation. Earlier work in our lab has shown that when learning new dance moves, a remarkable degree of information can be picked up from simply watching someone else perform or learn the task. Some evidence even suggests that in particular situations, watching someone else perform an action can be just as good as performing it yourself. New work in our lab seeks to explore how we learn via observation throughout our lifespan, as well as how efficiently our brains are able to transfer information we observe when learning new movements into actual performance from childhood through to old age.

How we negotiate the link between perception and action is something we rely upon on a daily basis, and is fundamental to every one of our lives. It would an incredible outcome if some of the younger people decide to pursue a career in cognitive neuroscience and join us in tackling challenge of determining the explanatory power of the mirror neuron system and its relation to motor skill, new action learning, and recovery of function after injury.

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  • TickBoxTyrant

    There’s an apparent focus on sight here. May be its just to illustrate the point? As a musician I’d say that hearing, touch and physical sensation are equally strong. And certainly the ability to perceive complex musical pieces improves with the ability to play. Probably because in order to do one you have to do a lot of the other!

    Another issue is self perception. Perceiving yourself whilst performing is a distorted and limited affair. Yet you can learn tonnes watching a video or listening to a recording of your performance! My suspicion is that this is partly the explanation for why watching someone else is instructive. It is hard to do both at once effectively. Even to accurately perceive the performance of others taking part in performing the same piece.

    I dont think playing multiple parts simultaneously is a directly conscious act, it is more a process of integration, based on knowing what it feels like. I suspect such a performance is built up from multiple pieces of previous experience or perceptions. Subconscious systems that are connected to more by feeling than thought.

    I don’t see this as any different to dance, skating, skiing etc… They are all brilliant and totally absorbing.

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