Observing motor learning produces somatosensory change

J Neurophysiol. 2013 Oct;110(8):1804-10. doi: 10.1152/jn.01061.2012. Epub 2013 Jul 17.


Observing the actions of others has been shown to affect motor learning, but does it have effects on sensory systems as well? It has been recently shown that motor learning that involves actual physical practice is also associated with plasticity in the somatosensory system. Here, we assessed the idea that observational learning likewise changes somatosensory function. We evaluated changes in somatosensory function after human subjects watched videos depicting motor learning. Subjects first observed video recordings of reaching movements either in a clockwise or counterclockwise force field. They were then trained in an actual force-field task that involved a counterclockwise load. Measures of somatosensory function were obtained before and after visual observation and also following force-field learning. Consistent with previous reports, video observation promoted motor learning. We also found that somatosensory function was altered following observational learning, both in direction and in magnitude, in a manner similar to that which occurs when motor learning is achieved through actual physical practice. Observation of the same sequence of movements in a randomized order did not result in somatosensory perceptual change. Observational learning and real physical practice appear to tap into the same capacity for sensory change in that subjects that showed a greater change following observational learning showed a reliably smaller change following physical motor learning. We conclude that effects of observing motor learning extend beyond the boundaries of traditional motor circuits, to include somatosensory representations.

Keywords: force-field learning; motor learning; observational learning; somatosensory plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult