Just watching a video of someone else encountering a painful stimulus can lead a person to react physically to the same stimulus himself, according to a new study. Participants watched a video of someone who had learned that every time a blue square appeared on his computer screen he would get shocked, but that yellow squares were harmless. It was obvious from the video that the person was expecting the shock. After seeing the video, the participants were set down in a similar situation, and when blue squares appeared on their computer screens they tensed up, even though they never received a shock. Their brains–specifically, their amygdalas–even appeared to be reacting, as they would if the subjects had learned through direct personal experience. This article from Live Science gives some details.
And on a slightly different note, this press release from Brandeis University discusses some research into how people learn sequences of physical motions. When people were given a series of motions to learn and repeat, they did as well by watching the sequence several times and then trying to reproduce it themselves as they did when they tried to imitate it after each viewing. In other words, they learned just as much by watching as they did by watching and imitating. (So maybe if I watch an exercise video over and over I’ll learn the steps? It sounds too good to be true.) There’s more in the press release about how this type of research could be applied to improve the way physical skills are taught.