Monkey See, Monkey Do: Real, Imagined, and Observed Behaviour

It may seem hard to believe at first, but our brains are actually equipped to process real movement (i.e., tying your shoelaces), imagined movement (i.e., imagining tying your shoelaces), and observed movement (i.e., watching your best friend tie their shoelaces) in very similar ways.

The motor network of the brain spans the entire cortex, and also recruits subcortical brain regions like the basal ganglia and cerebellum to facilitate movement. While we might take our mobility for granted, there are several important stages that take place before we actually put one foot before the other. From intention to planning a movement, our brains also have to send signals to specific muscles that will execute the planned movement. All of these steps are processed by brain regions that together form the action observation network, or ‘mirror neuron’ network.

Discovered by accident, Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti found that when they moved the reaching target for their test subjects’ next experimental trial, the same brain cells that fire when the subject reaches for a target also fired. These so-called mirror neurons in the premotor, or ‘motor planning’, cortex ‘mirror’ the motor command of an observed action, which literally primes the motor network of the observer to perform the movement they just saw with their own machinery. This brain network has been suggested to be a result of evolution, with our ancestors’ brains eventually computing motor commands from watching other cavemen start fires and chisel wheels. Even today, humans are learning through observation. Whether it is learning a dance routine or the difference between a great car and a lemon, our motor networks are constantly observing, adapting, and producing behaviour.

There is also a growing body of evidence that demonstrates these same motor regions are activated while visualizing movement, and the repeated practice of imagining a given movement has been suggested to enhance its performance. Many CEOs have signed up for ‘visualizing success’ courses, in order to prime their brains for positive action. If seeing, imagining, and doing all run on parallel streams in the brain, who’s to say picturing yourself driving a Mercedes won’t help you actually get it one day?

Consumer neuroscience – or neuromarketing – studies seek to explain how these processes impact the real drivers of motivation, and ultimately buying behaviour.

Written by: Paula DiNoto, MA. PhD Candidate – York University
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