In the world of sports, learning can take place in a number of ways. For example, a player can learn from listening to a coach, watching a teammate, watching an opponent, trying a number of times until success is reached, etc. A research team at Bristol University conducted a study in which they scanned the brains of participants while they battled an artificial opponent in a computer game.
They found that players learned from their own successes, but that they showed no increase in neural activity when their opponent succeeded. Rather, additional brain activity occurred when the opponent failed. These failures created reward signals in the brain as well as learning signals in regions involved with inhibiting response. In other words, the person learned what not to do in order to be rewarded.
The brain scans showed another interesting observation. Even though the players were only observing when the opponent made a selection on the computer screen, the same areas of the brain were activated as if the players were making the selections themselves. These mirror neurons are activated when we observe others performing actions. The observer’s brain is activated as if the person were performing the actions rather than someone else. This can be useful in mentally practicing good habits as well as trying to understand or anticipate what another person may do next.
I think an interesting case can be made here. When someone is observing another person carry out a specific action, and our mirror neurons fire as if we are carrying out the action personally, then why is the reward signal sent when we view a failure? Technically speaking, our brain is firing as if we are carrying out the actions, and if a failure just occurred, one might think that no reward signal would be sent.
The important aspect here is to remember that not only is a reward signal activated, but a learning signal is activated in the inhibiting response area as well. This second part is crucial to this learning process. The activation in the inhibiting response area is relaying chemical messages that are linking the inhibition of this action with reward signals.
An alternate example of this could be the following: You walk into a coffee shop and see the person in front of you grab the coffee on the top of the cup. The person then proceeds to take two steps before the lid pops off and coffee spills everywhere. During this incident, mirror neurons in your brain have been firing on how the person is holding the cup of coffee and how that person is walking. Once the “failure” occurs and the coffee is all over the floor, certain areas in your brain that involve inhibiting responses will be activated along with a reward signal. This coupling makes a learned response which inhibits you from grabbing the coffee in the same fashion, thus saving the staff from cleaning up another mess.