The amazing power of observation

Woman's eye with digital image overlain over
image: iStock / Getty

Scientists at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia once asked a bunch of volunteers to stretch an elastic band between two fingers.

They were to do 25 ‘reps’ every other day for a couple of weeks. Of course, as a consequence of these finger workouts, at the end of the two weeks the volunteers’ fingers had got stronger, and by about 50%.

While each person did their reps, however, someone else was instructed to sit opposite them and intently watch the person’s fingers as they did the reps.

Amazing, after the two weeks, the observers’ fingers had also grown stronger – and by 32%!

They hadn’t moved their fingers, nor even imagined moving them. They had simply observed the repetitive action. 

The technique is known as ‘action observation’ and has helped stroke patients recover movement and even people improve at sports.

It works via the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) in the brain, which activates when we pay attention to someone’s facial or bodily movements. The MNS is responsible for the phenomenon of emotional contagion, which I wrote about in an earlier blog (How to deflect negative emotion).

Here, the MNS mirrors facial expressions and stimulates the brain to prompt the emotions that accompany those facial expressions. Thus, spending time with happy people is likely to make you smile more and feel happier, and hanging out with stressed people is likely to make you frown more and feel stressed, which is indeed what research shows.

When you observe an action – whether of a person moving their facial muscles, a hand, arm, or even making a specific movement – the observation stimulates your MNS, which then stimulates your own face, hand, arm, or range of muscles required to make the movement you’ve observed. Action observation basically trains neural networks.

It can thus help us learn skills faster and even help people in some clinical contexts. 

In one study, volunteers watched people play guitar each day for a few days, paying attention to the finger movements being made. MRI brain scans later revealed that their brains had been activated as if they, themselves, had played the guitar.

In a study at the Neurocognition and Action-Biomechanics Research Group in Bielefeld, Germany, volunteers practiced making golf putts on a green. One group attempted 60 putts, another group visualised making 30 putts before then attempting 30 putts, while another group observed a video of an expert golfer making 30 putts (action observation) before attempting 30 putts themselves. 

They all did this for 3 days. On the third day, those who did the action observation were the most accurate, sinking more putts than those who did physical practice alone, and a little bit more than those who had visualised.

And in a pioneering study into stroke rehabilitation, scientists from the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein in Germany studied 8 stroke patients over a 4-week period as they watched able people perform routine actions, like drinking a cup of coffee or eating an apple. The patients also received normal rehabilitation during the period.

After four weeks of this, the patients who had done the action observation had improved much more than patients who did rehabilitation alone and, incredibly, MRI brain scans showed that some of their damaged brain regions were actually undergoing some reactivation.

A study of Alzheimer’s patients in a care home in the Netherlands even showed that action observation could lead to some cognitive improvements.

Forty four residents with dementia watched one of two types of video five days a week for six weeks. One group watched documentaries while another watched videos of people making repetitive hand movements. The researchers knew that the latter would stimulate the MNS in brain regions susceptible to Alzheimer’s and essentially give the brain a workout.

After the six weeks, those residents who had watched the hand movement videos had improved in an attention test and significantly in facial recognition compared with those residents who had simply watched documentaries.

These pieces of research show us that there is great potential in harnessing the MNS through the practice of action observation. Observing an action or movement repeatedly trains our own neural networks as if we were the ones doing the action or movement. We learn the movement or skill much faster as a consequence.

With specific skills, it’s therefore important to ensure that you are watching someone with expertise. Action observation of an amateur golfer will help you play more like that amateur, and if he or she has any errors in their technique it will help you wire the same errors of technique into your brain. It would therefore pay more dividends to watch an expert golfer.

Whatever you pay attention to in this way gets trained into your brain. I used the technique to learn to serve better at tennis. I took up tennis for the first time in my life in my mid 40s when we moved to the town of Dunblane, in central Scotland.

It’s quite famous for being the childhood home of former world No.1 tennis players, Andy and Jamie Murray, Andy in the singles and Jamie in the doubles. It has a thriving tennis community with a dozen competitive club leagues.

Most people in the leagues have played on and off since childhood so I felt I needed to learn fast.

So I obtained a 5-second video of Andy Murray hitting a serve and I watched it 3,000 times over a month.

Granted, that sounds a bit extreme, so let me explain. I put it on a loop and watched it in five sets of 20 views, so 100 views a day, It barely took 10 minutes a day and I did it every day for a month. This is much more action observation than is typically done in scientific studies, but I was determined to improve my serve.

I was pretty sure it would work because I had written a book about the MNS (The Contagious Power of Thinking) so I knew how to use action observation. It was also an experiment to see how quickly I could train my neural networks. I added some visualisation after the third day too.

It worked wonders. My serve completely transformed in this time. I went from multiple double faults and barely getting the serve over the net with any pace or accuracy, to hitting a much more powerful serve that was also more accurate.

I also won my league!

So if you want to try action observation to improve a skill, find an expert doing it and watch them over and over again. A video on loop is a good way to do it or simply pause and rewind.

You can try it for learning a new skill or to improve upon an existing one, or if you need to learn to move again after injury or illness, then you might find some benefit too.

Or even if you want to feel happier, try hanging out more with happy people and your MNS will train your smile muscles to work more and boost your positive feelings in the process.


  1. Dave Robinson on June 10, 2022 at 4:10 pm

    I don’t recall ever leaving a blog comment but truly believe that is a brilliant essay. For example, I love golf but am a hack. I’ve long felt that I can improve the most simply by observing good golfers, as opposed to taking lessons or getting tips. I’m going to find some good golf videos to watch over and over as an experiment. And look for other ways to apply this enormously important insight. Thank you, David, for this and the rest of your meaningful work.

  2. Trudy Alexander on September 16, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    Years ago I went to a line dancing class. There was a very complex sequence and I couldn’t get any of it so I sat down and watched the dancers repeat the dance several times concentrating on their feet. To this day I have no idea what happened but I got up and danced the whole (long) sequence through without making any mistakes. I hadn’t memorized the moves it was all automatic.. The look on the instructors face was priceless! I am not a dancer and this was the first class. Later on I found out about mirror the first book I think. I remembered that day and it suddenly made sense. Now I am incorporating it into anything I want to learn. Visualisation also helped me to become a lecturer. Thankyou for your wonderful insights and knowledge.

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