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Monkey see lets monkey do


Submitted by elizard2001 on 2005-08-17 | Last Modified on 2006-12-10

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“What’s the most important muscle for climbing?” my instructor asked for the fifth time. “Your brain,” we dutifully chanted in unison, still a bit skeptical. Yeah, yeah, your brain is important, but our instructor’s splayed limbs demonstrated that he certainly wasn’t hurting for other muscles. Meanwhile on the ground, my forearms were burning after one climb up the 8m wall. (Though in my defense, it was the one with the crazy incline). Still only a beginner, I drool at the nutters on the Banff mountain climbing films and wonder at whether I’ll ever get up the nerve to tap in my own pro, or go on a multi-pitch climb.

A springboard diver in my past life, I recently caught the climbing bug, and would much rather be trying to crimp my fingers around some miniscule hold than actually working on my dissertation. To alleviate my guilt, I decided to look for links between this thrilling sport and my journal article reading. During my grad student day-job, I study the human visual system. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why sunsets are so breathtaking, or why you can be looking directly at your keys and still not see them. However, I can tell you a little bit about how it is that we translate a visual image into an action. More importantly, the scientific community at large is starting to understand how it is that just by viewing expert performances, we can subsequently improve our initial athletic attempts.

Back in 1995, a couple of researchers noticed that the same brain areas active when a monkey reached for a grape were also active when the monkey saw another person reach for the grape. Hmmm, that’s interesting – what you do and what you see are linked at a fundamental neural level. Subsequent experiments found that individual cells in the front parts of the brain seemed to represent complex actions (e.g. reaching, grabbing) no matter whether it was the monkey that moved, or a nearby person who reached for the reward while the monkey simply watched. Furthermore, the cells had preferences for different actions – some brain cells were interested in reaching, some in tearing, while still others preferred bashing or poking. A couple of years ago, another group of researchers found that human brains are activated differently when watching someone else perform movements that they can also do (say, ballet dancers watching ballet performances), versus when watching people performing movement sequences at which they’re not expert (say, a rock climber watching a ballerina). Hmm, that’s interesting – so what you can do influences how you see.

I’ve always maintained that I dove better during the years that I was “second-fiddle” on the team. Those years at practice I had the pleasure of watching my expert teammates nail dive after dizzying dive, while I struggled to keep up with the number of flips and twists. Lucky me though – as I had the visual reinforcement of their excellence, my brain learned to pattern my own movements from theirs, allowing me to improve by leaps and bounds (excuse the pun). In climbing, one of the most important things any beginner can do to improve her performance is to spend hours watching the pros (or really anyone a decimal-rating or two better). Someone actually studied this for his dissertation already and found that beginner climbers shown a video of an expert climbing a route did better on that route themselves than those shown a video of a novice climber. So, what you see influences what you can then do. At some level this is old news – of course you should watch experts – only a scientist would find something miraculous in any of this. However, the fact that we know that the exact same brain areas are engaged in observing as well as producing motions will allow us to better train athletes, mentally as well as physically.

In many athletic programs (no matter the specific sport), video technology has taken over practice, allowing athletes to see their performances immediately after they’re executed. My former diving coach would TiVo each practice – allowing us to dive, watch what we just did, and then hop back up and try to improve on it. This helped for some aspects of the dive; for example, I never would believe that my feet came apart during twisters unless I saw it on tape! However, some of the recent research suggests that, while watching yourself is good and all, it’s watching folks better than you that will have the beneficial impact on your brain circuits.

One last kicker – another set of studies investigating mental imagery found that simply imagining moving one’s finger increased muscle strength in that particular finger. Extrapolating from this suggests that just thinking about yourself sending that route may actually help you develop the strength to do it. So all those athletic loons that you see staring up at the chalk marks on the wall, making small movements here and there as they decide on foot placement, are really teaching their brain what to expect on the way up. In short, much of the neuropsych research suggests that the best time to train your brain is while you’re resting your muscles. Stare at the wall. Really scrutinize your fellow climbers (well, the good ones, anyway). Of course, any decent athlete knows all of this at an instinctual level already. But hey – you’ve now got a great excuse to hang out and watch the experts for an extra hour as your muscles recuperate… Of course to see if you’ve learned anything, you’ve got to get out there and actually climb it.
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