As humans, our ability to survive within a social world is facilitated by learning through observing others. As such, when learning tasks as simple as tying one’s shoes or as complex as performing heart surgery, we learn by watching from childhood through to old age. Many researchers from the behavioural and brain sciences suggest that observational and physical learning share common features. What remains unknown is how our brains and behaviour change when learning by observation across the lifespan, as well as how age impacts the effectiveness of observational learning. To address these questions, I measure the impact of observational learning on behaviour and brain activity among children, young adults, and older adults. The ultimate aim is to develop a means of identifying factors associated with observational learning success, which in turn will inform observation-based interventions used in education and therapeutic contexts. The most direct implication of the ‘Watch and Learn’ project is a better understanding of how we transform visual information to physical skills from childhood through to advanced age. More broadly, those who teach or rehabilitate motor skills in people of all ages stand to benefit from the project’s findings through an improved understanding of how observational learning compares to physical learning in terms of behavioural performance, and how quickly or effectively individuals of different ages may be expected to learn by observation. Outreach activities are targeted at educators who teach physical skills in schools and hospitals, with the aim that observational approaches may be optimized based on the results of this project.
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