Monkey see, monkey do?

What is the very best way to learn a complex task? Is it practice, practice, practice, or is watching and thinking enough to let you imitate a physical activity, such as skiing or ballet? A new study from Brandeis University published this week in the Journal of Vision unravels some of the mysteries surrounding how we learn to do things like tie our shoes, feed ourselves, or perform dazzling dance steps.

"What makes one person clumsy and the next person a prima ballerina is a combination of talent and practice," explains study co-author Robert Sekuler a neuroscientist at Brandeis" Volen Center for Complex Systems. "We are trying to determine what strategies will optimize imitation learning, which is crucial for acquiring many of the skills used in daily life. A lot of what we do we learn by watching and imitating others."

The study provides a first detailed look into explicit learning of sequential, non-verbal material. While many studies have evaluated serial recall of words, researchers have paid little attention to imitation learning, even though such learning is crucial to just about everything we do, from sports to regaining mobility after a stroke or accident.

"This study demonstrates that we can learn much better just by watching than previously thought, but it also suggests that there is more than meets the eye," says Yigal Agam, a neuroscience graduate student and study co-author. "Next we need to really understand how to optimize non-verbal imitative learning—to make that learning as fast, easy and painless as possible."

The study evaluated participants" ability to view, remember and then reproduce a complex sequence of motions generated by the random, unpredictable movements of a disc. Even a single repetition of a motion sequence substantially reduced errors in reproduction. To test how important it was to actually reproduce the motion, Sekuler and his colleagues compared the participants" performance when they reproduced the motion after each viewing to when they did so only once, after the final viewing, and otherwise just carefully observed and thought about the motion. Interestingly, performance was the same. Seeing the motion, without actually imitating it, was enough to learn it.

But leveraging a learner"s attention to the task at hand is also critically important. "It"s not simply a question of information falling on the retina—this kind of learning is a skill of acquiring information, transforming it into output, which is the imitation," says Agam.

Several strategies may help leverage a learner"s attention and motivate imitative learning. Organizing the motor skill practice is key. For example, Sekuler, an expert on the neural and cognitive terrain of visual memory, says that breaking down a behavioral sequence into chunks can aid imitation learning, just as chunking can help us memorize a string of seemingly unrelated digits or other material. Agam and Sekuler have their sights set on identifying strategies that teachers and coaches could use to make complex actions more "chunkable," and therefore easier to imitate.

For example, to promote chunking (and learning), a complex behavior can be paused at just the right time, which will help the novice viewer more easily appreciate and imitate the separate components of that behavior. The researchers" long-term goal is to devise simple methods that will allow teachers and coaches to take any arbitrary complex action that they want to teach—like that series of dance steps or that perfect golf swing, and then re-package that action into components that make for optimal learning.

Written from a news release by Brandeis University.