Learning by direct example should be straightforward, but because it relies on specific pathways in the brain, even it can go awry. In this latest report from UCLA, researchers extended our knowledge of the mirror neuron area by finding out that that region of the brain not only recognizes and reflects motor activities, but also it predicts and determines the intentions of movements within the context of a specific situation.
If you've ever watched a group of preschoolers trying to learn the hokey pokey, you'd know that the intentional system is still trying to figure itself out in the early ages, but there are also wide variations in peoples' abilities to learning from watching and make predictions. On the one end there can be extraordinary sensory-motor expertise, while at the other, incoordination, clumsiness, and classic 'out-of-sync' / sensory procesing behaviors. Groups that may have difficulty with motor learning include those who are just a little slow to develop, others with mild birth injury (developmental dyscoordination disorder), others where it might just 'run in the family', and others who might have it in association with dyslexia. Problems with the mirroring of a more significant nature are being studied intensively by autism researchers.
On the playground or in the classroom, motor imitation problems affect many aspects of learning from example, like picking up new athletic skills, any motor skill like writing, or non verbal language involving gestures. But motor mirroring areas also appear to have extensive connections to emotional areas too, so that impaired imitation can disadvantage a person also in social interactions and emotional empathy.
In the figure below, much higher levels of brain activation (including emotional centers) where seen when test subjects were told to imitate emotional facial expressions vs. just observe them.
The implications for this on a practical level, mean that we should think of the brain's motor imitation systems of being much more than motor output. Efficient mirroring helps us physically and emotionally respond to others, and perform complicated sequences of activities without too much thinking. It's probably no surprise that a convergence of various sensory-motor programs (balancing on a balance board, juggling, moving with a metronome) have grown up to help a wide range of students with 'attention', 'dyslexia', or 'sensory processing dysfunction'. For some people, coordination, timing, and motor planning do not automatic, and specific practice or training can help.
Grasping the Intentions of Others:Mirror Neurons
Neural Mechanisms of Empathy