Biological mechanisms for observational learning

Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2019 Feb;54:178-185. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2018.11.008. Epub 2018 Dec 6.


Observational learning occurs when an animal capitalizes on the experience of another to change its own behavior in a given context. This form of learning is an efficient strategy for adapting to changes in environmental conditions, but little is known about the underlying neural mechanisms. There is an abundance of literature supporting observational learning in humans and other primates, and more recent studies have begun documenting observational learning in other species such as birds and rodents. The neural mechanisms for observational learning depend on the species' brain organization and on the specific behavior being acquired. However, as a general rule, it appears that social information impinges on neural circuits for direct learning, mimicking or enhancing neuronal activity patterns that function during pavlovian, spatial or instrumental learning. Understanding the biological mechanisms for social learning could boost translational studies into behavioral interventions for a wide range of learning disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Observation*
  • Reward
  • Social Behavior*