CELEBRATE! Profile: Lauren Packard '15
An Elon University senior independent major in neuroscience made a surprising discovery when she tracked brain activity in dancers being shown how to perform a new task.
By Sarah Mulnick ‘17
Can being an expert in one skill help you learn another? Previous studies suggest it’s possible because of an under-researched part of the brain that helps a person learn new talents through observation.
The mirror neuron system in the brain’s motor cortex is thought to correlate with observational learning, motor planning and empathy. Mirror neurons have been shown to activate when watching an action in the same way they do when performing it.
Elon University senior Lauren Packard wanted to know if those neurons could be used to learn something completely new through observation.
Working closely with Associate Professor Caroline Ketcham in the Department of Exercise Science, Packard studied the way that observation could be used as a method of teaching. Her research, “Mirror Neuron System Activation in Dancers: Implications for Observational Learning,” is the latest to be featured on E-net this week in a series of stories about research and creative projects showcased April 28 at the 2015 Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.
Packard recruited dancers and non-dancers and monitored how their brains’ mirror neuron systems reacted to assigned tasks. She asked participants to observe a recorded dance movement and then a video on how to say a short phrase in American Sign Language. Afterwards, she videotaped them attempting the phrase with their hands.
The goal was to see if the levels of neural activity during observation translated to the participants being able to perform a motor skill that they were not experts in.
What she found was surprising.
Researchers have previously documented that those who are experts in one motor skill, such as dance, have elevated mirror neuron system activity when observing the motor skill in which they are trained.
“My work actually contradicted what previous researchers said,” Packard said. “Dancers didn’t have higher levels of mirror neuron system activity when compared to non-dancers.”
Experts, Packard found, were better able to learn a novel movement from observation than non-experts. But it wasn’t the same for everyone: Packard noted that dancers whose dance style involved attention to detail and intricate hand movements performed better with the sign language assignment than those whose dancing did not.
Dancers did have an elevated neural response to the sign language video, though, and were better able to perform it—which supports Packard’s hypothesis, and gives hope that this is involved with observational learning.
“The mirror neuron system could be used to develop therapies for those who have motor difficulties such as people who have suffered a stroke or people who have motor planning issues,” she said. “Strengthening the mirror neuron system could potentially make it easier for these people to learn proper movements.”
The Colorado native arrived at Elon passionate about both neuroscience and dance and was excited to have the opportunity to work with both through a research project she designed. The opportunities that her project offered, she said, were endless.
“It was really exciting to be able to see my project through from start to finish,” she said. “We found significant results in my data, which was also really cool.”
An independent major in neuroscience with a focus in motor control, Packard has worked as the student assistant for the Undergraduate Research Office, and she has served as co-president of LEAF (Lutherans, Episcopalians and Friends).
Packard is still deciding between two opportunities following her May graduation: spend a year of service at a nonprofit in Peru, or accept a post-baccalaureate fellowship at Duke University.
CELEBRATE! is Elon University’s annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. For more information, visit elon.edu/celebrate.