The parts of our brain that provide us with our sense of touch are also activated when we watch someone else learn a hands-on skill.
That’s according to a new study from Heather McGregor and Paul Gribble of Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute. The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.
“In our experiments, we showed that learning a new motor skill by watching others complete the task also depends on the neuroplasticity of the somatosensory cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in the sense of touch,” says McGregor, a graduate student in the Paul Gribble Lab and the study’s lead author.
One experiment had people watch a video of a person learning a new motor skill with stimulation disrupting neural processing in the somatosensory cortex applied to sensory nerves of either the right or left arm. Researchers found that when the stimulation was applied to the same arm as the person in the video used the viewer performed poorly when tested in the new motor skill. Those who had stimulation applied to the opposite arm of the person in the video showed no disruption in learning.
Another experiment saw researchers use technology to measure activity in the brain before and after observing someone else learn a new skill. McGregor and Gribble found that activity was increased in the somatosensory cortex and in fact those with the largest increase in activity performed better when tested in the new motor skill that they had observed.