Rapid Learning of Associations Between Sound and Action Through Observed Movement: A TMS Study

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Research has established that there is a cognitive link between perception and production of the same movement. However, there has been relatively little research into the relevance of this for nonexpert perceivers, such as music listeners who do not play instruments themselves. In 2 experiments we tested whether participants can quickly learn new associations between sounds and observed movement without performing those movements themselves. We measured motor evoked potentials in the first dorsal interosseous muscle of participants’ right hands while test tones were heard, and single transcranial magnetic stimulation pulses were used to trigger motor activity. In Experiment 1, participants in a “human” condition (n = 4) learnt to associate the test tone with finger movement of the experimenter, while participants in a “computer” condition (n = 4) learnt that the test tone was triggered by a computer. Participants in the human condition showed a larger increase in motor evoked potentials compared with those in the computer condition. In a second experiment pairing between sounds and movement occurred without participants repeatedly observing the movement, and we found no such difference between the human (n = 4) and computer (n = 4) conditions. These results suggest that observers can quickly learn to associate sound with movement, so it should not be necessary to have played an instrument to experience some motor resonance when hearing that instrument.

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