The imitation game: mirror neurons and education

Researcher Marco Montalto tells TEODOR RELJIC how research into mirror neurons, which reveal to us the dynamic of how we emulate behavioural patterns, can offer crucial insight into the educational process

Master and apprentice: Research shows that practice is a more effective teaching tool than observation
Master and apprentice: Research shows that practice is a more effective teaching tool than observation

Perhaps there’s some truth to the adage that ‘the old ways are the best’. Though in this case it’s a matter of cutting edge technology and research leading us back to that truism. By researching brain activity, Marco Montalto has discovered that perhaps a more ‘old-school’, apprenticeship based system may be a more effective way for students to retain information and consolidate their training. 

In a series of electroencephalography (EEG) experiments conducted as part of the research for the Ph.D degree at the University of Malta, Montalto – under the supervision of Dr Noellie Brockdorff and Prof. Richard Muscat – compared how dancers of varying skill levels responded to observing their counterparts in action. The original aim of the research was to determine whether one could simply absorb and replicate an action through observation – “whether one fits himself/herself in another person’s shoes automatically” – or whether practice is required in order for this to happen, “by sensing and feeling through one’s body (as against by intellectualising),” as Montalto put it. 

“At first we were of the opinion that this kind of embodied understanding of another’s action (an understanding of another’s action by figuratively putting oneself in the other person’s shoes) would happen automatically,” Montalto said, adding that however, he and his team were “proved wrong”, and that it was only those who had experienced the actions ‘through their own bodies’ were able to replicate them. 

Mirror neurons were discovered when monkeys began to mimic their experimenter's actions
Mirror neurons were discovered when monkeys began to mimic their experimenter's actions

The key to all this, Montalto explained, is the human mirror neuron system (MNS). Originally discovered thanks to experiments conducted on the brains of monkeys in the 1990s, these neurons were originally observed to be active both when the monkey was doing a particular action and also when it observed the experimenter doing a similar action. Some time after their discovery, scientists started finding evidence that a similar network of neurons was present in the human brain too.

“What really attracted my attention about the human MNS was the way it facilitated with ease the understanding of the other by simply having his/her actions mapped onto the observer’s motor vocabulary,” Montalto said. 

“In simpler terms, what this meant was that I come to understand whatever it is you are doing because I know what I would be thinking when I myself would be doing a similar action.”

During the experiments, Montalto presented video footage of expert and novice performers in action to expert and novice participants and “found evidence that the MNS was activated during observation of expert performer in action only when the observers themselves were trained in the observed expert action”. 

This meant that novice (untrained) observers could only react to observed novice action, and this only when observed novice action was not perceived as too specialised an action.

Marco Montalto
Marco Montalto

“Telling expert action from novice action is something we all do relatively easily, even if we might have no expertise in the doing ourselves,” Montalto explained, adding that his initial assumptions were that observation in and of itself would have been enough, since, “if the human MNS would be activated during any observed action automatically, then we would expect the novice participants’ MNS to be activated during observation of both expert and novice performers in action”.

The realization that it is practice and not observation that can more efficiently sharpen any given skill may have significant implications to the standard educational model – i.e., one that values observation and theory over practice. 

“The traditional system of educating students, that is, the one of having them follow mainly theory-based classes, might not be enough to prepare students for a career in expert practices such as dance, theatre or sports,” Montalto said. While he conceded that “not all students are destined to become top sportsmen or world-class performers”, Montalto still believes that there is a vast pool of students that would greatly benefit from an educational system that is from the very start complemented (or maybe even supplanted) by practice-based classes. 

“I believe that it is still too early to fully understand the qualitative difference between intellectual knowledge and embodied knowledge (the fitting yourself in another person’s shoes type of knowledge). But I strongly believe that had the practice, action-based, aspect in learning been given stronger preference in our childhood years, subjects like mathematics would have been less of a headache for most of us,” he added. 

In this EEG setup employed by Montalto to conduct his research, electrodes are attached to the participants’ scalp and the electrical activity of the brain is picked up by these electrodes, amplified by special equipment and stored on a computer for further processing and analyses. Montalto and his team measured the brain activity of expert and novice participants while they watched the video clips showing expert and novice performers in action. In the post-processing phase, they were able to look at specific aspects of that recorded brain activity, namely brain activity related to MNS functioning.

This research work was partially funded by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta). This Scholarship is part-financed by the European Union – European Social Fund (ESF) under Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, ‘Empowering People for More Jobs and a Better Quality of Life’.