During the Olympics, the mirror neurons of whole nations will be electrically identical. Jonah Lehrer takes a look at why we love to watch.

Originally published in the SUMMER 2004 issue of Seed. Updated for 2006:

ski.jpg Credit: Maxim Petrichuk

At about the same time that Homer invented the epic hero, the Greeks started a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. The Gods, they decided, might like to see the human form in motion. Naked men competed in a single race, 200 yards long. The winner received a branch of wild olives. The Greeks called this celebration the Olympics.

Though the ancient sprint remains, today the Olympics are a sporting bacchanalia. The Gods are gone, but the thrill of seeing the body rage against its limits endures. Ski jumpers, plummeting towards snowy earth, find time to elegantly carve air. Figure skaters, with their flesh like a rubber band of muscle, suggest that gravity is optional. Faster, higher, farther: The Olympics celebrate the dream of progress as embodied in human form.

That the games are intoxicating to watch seems beyond question. After all, over one million people will flock to Torino this winter; 3.2 billion people will watch the games on television. That’s half the world. We will all hold our breath when the bobsledders make hairpin turns on the icy track. We will rise from our seats when skating begins. Certainly, being a spectator is an enthralling experience, but why?

In 1996, three Italian neuroscientists, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese put an electric probe into the premotor cortex of monkeys. They discovered that inside these primate brains there were networks of cells that “store vocabularies of motor actions.” Just as there are grammars of language, rules for forming a sentence, there are grammars of movement. These populations of cells are the bodily “sentences” we use every day, the ones our brain has chosen to retain and refine.

Think, for example, about a golf swing. To those who have only watched the Masters on TV, golfing seems easy. It’s like T-ball played on a vast lawn. To the novice, however, casting a smooth arc with a lopsided metal stick is virtually impossible. This is because most novices swing with their consciousness, using an area of brain right next to the premotor cortex. To Tiger Woods, on the other hand, the mellifluous whoosh-ping sound of a perfectly balanced stroke is second nature. For him, the motor action has become memorized and the movements embedded in the neurons of his premotor cortex. He swats the dimpled ball with the tranquility of his unconscious, his neurons on a perfected autopilot.

John Updike, in his novel Rabbit, Run, has his character Rabbit struggle while on the golf course to explain to his Episcopalian minister what he’s chasing in life, what he wants “from it all.” Lacking the eloquence to tell him, Rabbit takes a swing. To his surprise, he hits a booming drive that flies down the fairway, a divine straight line diverted only by gravity. He turns to the minister and says, “That’s it.” What Rabbit really wants is to live like Tiger Woods swings, with the greased ease of the unconscious.

Woods, after all, has been blessed with a particularly eloquent set of neurons in the premotor cortex. His nerves, hard-wired by a lifetime of driving ranges and practice puts, have learned to activate just the right subset of muscles at exactly the right time. For Woods, driving the white ball 300 yards to the green is as much an act of brain as brawn. It is a feat of invisible, electrical choreography.

These neurons, in the premotor cortex, besides explaining why certain athletes seem to flirt with the sublime (Did Ali have the perfect neurons for the punch? Did Jordan’s premotor cortex contain the ideal plan for the drive and dunk?), possess an even more astonishing property, one that caused Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese to give them the lofty title “mirror neurons.” They note, “The main functional characteristic of mirror neurons is that they become active both when the monkey makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object or holding it) and when it observes another individual making a similar action.”

Humans have an even more elaborate mirror-neuron system. These peculiar cells mirror, on our inside, the outside world; they enable us to internalize the actions of another. In order to be activated, though, these cells require what the scientists call “goal-oriented movements.” If we are staring at a photograph, a fixed image of Michelle Kwan mid-turn, our mirror neurons are totally silent. They don’t care. They only fire when Kwan is an active verb: jumping, moving, twirling. Our mirror neurons were designed for the Olympics broadcast, not for the front of the sports page.

What these electrophysiological studies indicate is that when we watch Tiger Woods at Augusta, or Michelle Kwan step on the ice, the mirror neurons in our own premotor cortex light up as if we were the ones competing. Though we are in reality sprawled on the couch, with one hand on the remote and the other on a beer, our premotor cortex is convinced that we are one of the world’s greatest athletes.

This phenomenon of neuronal mirroring was first discovered back in 1954, when two French physiologists, Gastaut and Bert, found that the brains of humans vibrate with two distinct EEG wavelengths, an alpha and a mu. The alpha system is active when our sensory systems are turned off. The mu system is active (the green screen blipping away) when our bodies are still. The mu signal disappears (flatlines) whenever we do something active, like play sports or change the channel. The weird fact is that the mu signal also goes limp when we watch someone else being active, as on TV. When these results were first announced, the data was seized upon as concrete evidence of telepathy. Someone else’s body turned off our mu. But what the paranormalists were really observing were the effects of mirror neurons.

Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese call the idea of mirror neurons the “direct matching hypothesis.” They believe that we only understand the movement of our sports stars when we “map the visual representation of the observed action onto our motor representation of the same action.” According to this theory, the Olympic athlete “causes the motor system of the observer to resonate…. The ‘motor knowledge’ of the observer is used to understand the observed action.” We understand sports (even synchronized swimming) by projecting ourselves into the chiseled body of the athlete, imagining our own bodies stained with sweat. ut mirror neurons are more than just the neural substrate for our sports addiction. They are plastic, eager to modify their cortical networks in response to our viewing habits. It turns out that watching Tiger Woods truly helps make us better golfers and watching Michelle Kwan actually improves our double axel. (Of course, we could also improve the old fashioned way, and strap on our skates). Because we internalize their motor movements, because our mirror neurons unconsciously imitate Kwan’s limber legs, we might find our own limbs a little more graceful the next time we go for a skate.

This ability to learn merely by watching is a crucial skill. From the acquisition of language as infants (all that cooing is an attempt to imitate the complex sentences of parents) to learning facial expressions, the act of mimesis is an essential part of being conscious. This biological trait was first identified in shore birds that, when exposed to a predator, will flap their wings in a show of alarm. Other birds, even if they haven’t seen the stimulus themselves, will nevertheless propagate the warning.

Only the dances of the honeybee can dare to compete with the elaborate actions humans imitate. From the tango to the pitching windup, we are a species that learns by watching, and, only then, by doing. Before we dare to get out on the dance floor or the field, our mirror neurons rehearse the sport mentally. So the best athletes are those in possession of both a premotor cortex capable of imagining the movements of victory and also the brawn required to make those movements real.

But how many of us regularly watch sports to be a better athlete? We don’t generally count our days at the ballpark as educational experiences or imitate the stars on television in the hopes that we might one day win a gold medal on the balance beam. We watch sports for the feeling, the human drama. We watch for those surges of emotion in the ninth inning or the last ten meters of a race when the game of victory is decided by invisible inches. In a climactic sports moment, one feels the oxygen disappear as thousands of fans collectively inhale. Pulses rise. Men begin to sweat. A stadium of strangers, every eye locked on the same distant game, suddenly becomes bound by a shared emotional tension.

winterfan.jpg Credit: Justin Horrocks

This feeling derives from mirror neurons too. By letting us, the spectators, imbibe in the motions of victory, these neurons also let us share in its feelings. They are what make observation such an active verb. This is because they are directly connected to the amygdala, one of the main brain regions involved in emotion. The premotor cortex is bound, via myelin highway to the center of our sentiment.

It has long been theorized that the representation of our body plays a crucial role in our feeling. Spinoza was the first one with this idea (the human mind is the idea of the human body), and the theory was first given scientific edge by William James, who said, “We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble.” James theorized that a feeling is born when the brain’s representation of the body’s landscape, the somatosensory map that plots the body’s state in time, space, and chemicals, is changed. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who has recently revived this theory and given it a real physiology, wrote that “a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body.”

Sports are the ultimate demonstration of James’ theory—a fact that was not lost on James, who himself believed that “a blessed internal peace…wells up from every part of the body of a muscularly well-trained human being, and soaks the indwelling soul of him with satisfaction.” The more in tune we are with our bodies (as athletes are), the more in tune we are with our feelings.

To play a sport, then, is to pluck the very strings of our emotions, cajoling the brain, via the body, into a mood representative of our limbs. How many of us have ever seen a peaceful-looking boxer? According to the structure of our brain, it’s impossible: The violent body leads to violent thoughts. Of course, the opposite is also true: While yoga isn’t quite a sport, its body positions do induce a tranquil mood. The brain is in the body’s province.

Mirror neurons, because they internally reflect the athlete’s bodily movements, make the spectator just as emotionally vulnerable as those actually doing the sweating. To watch boxing or a football game is to feel, on some deep subconscious level, our own surges of aggression. Our mirror neurons mirror the moves of our sports stars and, via their cellular projections to the amygdala, reproduce an equivalent feeling in us, the fans. During the Olympics, the mirror neurons of whole nations will be electrically identical, their athletes causing spectators to feel, just for a second or two, the same thing. Watching sports brings us together.

The truth is, most of us will never run a sub-four-minute mile or hit a homer to center. We couldn’t make the catch, and we’d probably miss the shot. Our consolation comes in the form of fanhood. When we gather around the TV, when we witness the balletic slam dunk, the hole in one, or the new world record, we all imbibe, just a little, in the feeling of perfection.

When we watch the Olympics this summer, entranced by the virtuosity these athletes are so blessed with, part of us will surely think, “That was amazing. I’ll never do that.” But then we’ll remember our mirror neurons. We’ve already done it.

Originally published February 10, 2006


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