The human “mirror-system” is suggested to play a crucial role in action observation and execution, and is characterized by activity in the premotor and parietal cortices during the passive observation of movements. The previous motor experience of the observer has been shown to enhance the activity in this network. Yet visual experience could also have a determinant influence when watching more complex actions, as in dance performances. Here we tested the impact visual experience has on motor simulation when watching dance, by measuring changes in corticospinal excitability. We also tested the effects of empathic abilities. To fully match the participants' long-term visual experience with the present experimental setting, we used three live solo dance performances: ballet, Indian dance, and non-dance. Participants were either frequent dance spectators of ballet or Indian dance, or “novices” who never watched dance. None of the spectators had been physically trained in these dance styles. Transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to measure corticospinal excitability by means of motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) in both the hand and the arm, because the hand is specifically used in Indian dance and the arm is frequently engaged in ballet dance movements. We observed that frequent ballet spectators showed larger MEP amplitudes in the arm muscles when watching ballet compared to when they watched other performances. We also found that the higher Indian dance spectators scored on the fantasy subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, the larger their MEPs were in the arms when watching Indian dance. Our results show that even without physical training, corticospinal excitability can be enhanced as a function of either visual experience or the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional characters. We suggest that spectators covertly simulate the movements for which they have acquired visual experience, and that empathic abilities heighten motor resonance during dance observation.
Jola, C., Abedian-Amiri, A., Kuppuswamy, A., Pollick, F. E., & Grosbras, M-H. (2012). Motor simulation without motor expertise: enhanced corticospinal excitability in visually experienced dance spectators. PLoS One, 7(3), [ e33343]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033343