Anticipating with our bodies

You're watching someone shoot on goal, but you can't see the final outcome. Can you predict what will happen next, and if you can, how are you able to do this? In a couple of studies, we've tested the idea that the way you solve this problem is by drawing on your own "motor memories". When people have had physical experience throwing a dart for example, if they now watch someone else throw a dart, they can "understand" that action by activating their own motor system and use their experience to arrive at a decision. Although experts and people with physical experience are, not surprisingly, better able to predict the actions of others from videos that have been edited to remove the final part of the action or outcome, if we ask them to do a very simple motor task at the same time, they no longer show this advantage. In 2 studies, skilled darts players as well as people who had physical practice throwing to different areas of a dart board, were better at making anticipatory predictions about another person's actions except when we asked them to gently push against a barrier with their "throwing arm". Pushing with the opposite hand did not affect prediction accuracy. Why? We reasoned that this simple hand action prevented or at least interfered with the normal activation of the motor system which helps an experienced performer understand what they're seeing. People who just had practice making these predictions, or just observed (i.e., no physical practice throwing darts), showed no such interference from the hand pushing task. Because visual training can help improve prediction processes, this suggests that the way we make predictive decisions is different, dependent on the type of practice experiences we've had.