Sensitivity of the action observation network to physical and observational learning

Emily S. Cross, David J. M. Kraemer, Antonia F. De C. Hamilton, William M. Kelley, Scott T. Grafton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

288 Citations (Scopus)


Human motor skills can be acquired by observation without the benefit of immediate physical practice. The current study tested if physical rehearsal and observational learning share common neural substrates within an action observation network (AON) including premotor and inferior parietal regions, that is, areas activated both for execution and observation of similar actions. Participants trained for 5 days on dance sequences set to music videos. Each day they physically rehearsed one set of dance sequences ("danced"), and passively watched a different set of sequences ("watched"). Functional magnetic resonance imaging was obtained prior to and immediately following the 5 days of training. After training, a subset of the AON showed a degree of common activity for observational and physical learning. Activity in these premotor and parietal regions was sustained during observation of sequences that were danced or watched, but declined for unfamiliar sequences relative to the pretraining scan session. These imaging data demonstrate the emergence of action resonance processes in the human brain based on observational learning without physical practice and identify commonalities in the neural substrates for physical and observational learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-326
Number of pages12
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • dance
  • mirror neuron system
  • motor learning
  • parietal
  • premotor

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