Whether we are watching Kobe Bryant sink a pull-up fadeaway jumper or Mikhail Baryshnikov perform a grand jeté, there is no denying our awe of people who can move in ways we cannot. Researchers recently identified the brain regions that become active when we see extraordinary postures, offering insight into how skilled athletes and performers confound us.
Previous research has shown that a network of mirror neurons in the brain is activated when we watch people move in familiar ways—we mentally rehearse their actions as if we were performing them ourselves. But what happens when we observe people moving in ways we cannot?
Emily Cross and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig scanned the brains of 18 people with functional MRI while showing them photographs of a contortionist in ordinary positions—stretching to one side, for example—and in contorted postures such as lying on her stomach with her toes touching her forehead. Whether the participants saw contorted or ordinary postures, the mirror neuron system became activated. But another region of the brain that responds strongly to seeing the human body and limbs—the extrastriate body area (EBA)—was even more active when a person saw contorted postures.
“The fact that the mirror neuron system doesn’t discriminate means it’s not as simple as we thought,” Cross says, in reference to the theory that these cells “mirror” others’ actions exactly. “When we start seeing bodies that are doing different postures, it seems to be the visual regions pulling apart what we can and can’t do.” She notes that this study looked at only static body postures, but together with subsequent experiments—including one in which people watched videos of gymnasts—it offers a possible mechanism for how the brain predicts what will happen a few seconds ahead of what we experience.
It could be that when we watch someone dance or run down a basketball court, our brain is imagining us doing the same action until the dancer pirouettes or the player slam-dunks. At that point the brain engages the visual EBA region to make sense of what we are seeing.