About action representation and motor cognition

In Marc Jeannerod‘s book “Motor Cognition” from 2006, “action representation” is a very central concept, which I find it very interesting to connect with my reflections on practising. The term covers a hypothesis about motor actions that say, that the same neural mechanism is active whether we imagine an act, perform an act or observe an action. The term is related to the idea of mirror systems, since imitation is a basic element. Action representation, however, has more far-reaching implications, as the term includes a completely basic overlay of three phenomena, normally perceived as separate in relation to a motor action: 1) the mental imagining 2) the muscular performance and 3) the subsequent sensory registration.

If we take the example from the section “About being several places at the same time“, the mental image of writing the word “Klenau” on a computer keyboard, the motor performance of the K-l-e-n-a-u finger movements and the tactile sensation of the keystrokes (including the visual sensation of ” Klenau “on screen) all share a common component in the brain. All three phenomena activate a common area, which is called the shared action representation.

This corresponds well with the overall feeling which I previously described (See About the control paradox). And it also makes sense that by focusing the attention “outside” ourselves, i.e. on the sounding result, we can not only improve the motor performance but also the mental imagination of the music. This cognitive aspect is a very important part of the overall concept of “motor cognition”, which is also described by Marc Jeannerod. It makes sense to speak of “motor cognition”, as the motor system and the sensation of this also works back on our mental images of actions.

This means, that much of our behavior is not “top-down” starting “at the top” with the conscious thought, but control and intention often arise bottom-up, i.e. from our sensory and motor systems. We thus have a system in which the embedded pattern in the form of an action representation is the link between motor movements, sensory effects and mental images. This is why we can also use action representations “backwards” to achieve the right patterns of movement by imagining their effects. This is an extremely relevant knowledge for the development of your own and others’ artistic skills.

Here is a quote from Motor Cognition, page 171

“(…) there is an observable transition between automatic functioning and conscious monitoring. The conditions for this transition to appear consistently show that action representations are always close to the edge of consciousness”

Action representations simulate the actions they represent and they are always present, regardless of whether the action is actually performed. They may also be activated “from the outside” – from other people – and in fact it is possible, in principle, to learn as much by observing an act as by performing it yourself (See About (self) imitation)

To introduce a concept like motor cognition thus emphasizes: 1) the fast and automated manner in which our motor system is working; 2) the view that targeted actions are mostly performed outside of conscious control and that 3) the mirror system works immediately when you observe an action.

So, a process like in FormingPerforming, where I continually observe myself, will by the observation itself create an improvement by working backwards. It is equally plausible that my awareness of being recorded creates a positive feedback loop between the perception of my expressive sound, my imagination of the music and the motor performance of it. Here it does not make sense to ask what comes first – all aspects are important in order to reach your full potential.

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