Background: Observing competitive games such as sports is a pervasive entertainment among humans. The inclination to watch others play may be based on our social-cognitive ability to understand the internal states of others. The mirror neuron system, which is activated when a subject observes the actions of others, as well as when they perform the same action themselves, seems to play a crucial role in this process. Our previous study showed that activity of the mirror neuron system was modulated by the outcome of the subject's favored player during observation of a simple competitive game (rock-paper-scissors). However, whether the mirror neuron system responds similarly in a more complex and naturalistic sports game has not yet been fully investigated.
Methodology/principal findings: In the present study, we measured the activity of motor areas when the subjects, who were amateur baseball field players (non-pitchers), watched short movie clips of scenes in professional baseball games. The subjects were instructed to support either a batter or a pitcher when observing the movie clip. The results showed that activity in the motor area exhibited a strong interaction between the subject's supported side (batter or pitcher) and the outcome (a hit or an out). When the subject supported the batter, motor area activity was significantly higher when the batter made an out than when he made a hit. However, such modulation was not apparent when the subject supported the pitcher.
Conclusions/significance: This result indicates that mirror neuron system activity is modulated by the outcome for a particular player in a competitive game even when observing a complex and naturalistic sports game. We suggest that our inclination to watch competitive games is facilitated by this characteristic of the mirror neuron system.