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Using fMRI, cognitive scientist Emily Grossman studies how we learn by observing actions of others; findings help researchers understand how brain areas communicate with one another, helps treat those with brain abnormalities
If you want to be a better golfer, you study, among other things, a successful golfer. You watch their swing, how they hold their club, how they position their feet. Essentially, you study how they expertly perform the action you yourself intend to master; common knowledge with which Emily Grossman, cognitive science professor and associate director of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at UC Irvine, agrees.
"People are able to generate motor activities very effectively when viewing similar motor activities," she says, hence the proverbial 'monkey see, monkey do.' This, however, is not always the case in certain populations, says Grossman, noting that individuals suffering from autism, schizophrenia and stroke experience varying levels of difficulty when attempting to emulate similarly represented actions. This difficulty stems, in part, from abnormalities or dysfunctions in an area of the brain with which Grossman is very familiar.
"The superior temporal sulcus is an area of the brain associated with visual perception of biological motion," she says. "When we observe someone performing an action - walking, throwing, kicking - this part of the brain becomes very active." Discovering this phenomenon while in graduate school, Grossman employs MRI technology to study brain activity levels in the superior temporal sulcus in order to better understand how visual and motor activities come together to formulate perception. "In a normally functioning brain, this construction happens almost instantaneously," she says. It makes sense, then, that when this area is damaged or doesn't form properly, perception becomes more difficult as is often the case for victims of stroke and individuals with autism and schizophrenia, respectively.
Through continued research, Grossman seeks to further understand how the many different areas of the brain communicate. "There are well over 30 areas in our brain dedicated to vision, of which there are only three to four where we have a good idea of what's happening. The rest is unknown," Grossman says. "My interest is to better understand how these areas talk to one another to contribute to our awareness."