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Can you improve your performance by observing others? Researchers say yes!

We all know that memory is a crucial aspect in every performer’s life.

Consider the basis of your performance: the repertoire (musicians), the script (actors), the choreography (dancers), the lyrics (singers); being able to enduringly memorise it, helps building your self-confidence and controlling your emotions on stage.

For that purpose, you could combine “false memories” produced by imagination and observation with the memories you create while actually studying and rehearsing for your performance.

The supporting evidence for this thesis comes from the findings of a scientific research: “Observation Inflation: Your Actions Become Mine”, by I. Lindner, G. Echterhoff, P. S.R. Davidson, and M. Brand, 2010.

The research recalls the concept of imagination inflation: “Imagining performing an action can induce false memories of having actually performed it – this is referred to as the imagination-inflation effect.” (Goff & Roediger, 1998; Thomas, Bulevich, & Loftus, 2003), and demonstrates the observation inflation: “Action observation robustly produced false memories of self-performance relative to control conditions.

In fact, the researchers collected significant results from three different experiments, where the participants had to read, imagine, perform, and observe several different actions; after 2 weeks, the participants were administered a memory test.

When, on a memory test, participants reactivate mirrored action representations, they could – erroneously – remember having performed the action”.

In simple words, the researchers prove that both imagining and observing a performed action, produce in our mind false memories of having performed that action ourselves.

So, how can we use this information in order to improve our memory? Isn’t it “false memories”?

Yes, basically the findings of this research say that in our mind we mix real memories with fake memories. Still there are two – positive – aspects to consider:


Observation helps you familiarise with the action

The research states that “Action observation could lead to false memories because it increases familiarity with the action”.

Of course, you have to practice an action in order to master it; yet observing a great professional doing it, can help you recall it as if you performed it yourself.

e.g. watching another dancer do a choreography before you study it, will help you remember the steps as if you already studied them.


Observation and imagination cement the memory of what you performed.

According to the research, “Observation and imagination not only increased false “performed” responses but also increased correct “performed” responses”.

Apart from studying and rehearsing, take every chance you can to imagine and observe the actions you would like to improve in your performance.

e.g. when you are studying an instrument, and you are not able to play a passage of a piece of work (like a scale), observe others doing it correctly. This will help you recreate it correctly.

Nota bene:

  • Sensory overlap could decrease this observation inflation, as stated in the research: “In Experiment 3, the effect was, if anything, lower when there was high sensory overlap (vs. partial sensory overlap) between performance and observation. When visual and auditory overlap was reduced to a minimum, the effect persisted.” Let’s say you want to memorise a rhythmic passage on your drum: observe it performed without sound (only visual), and try to reproduce it on your drum with your eyes closed (only auditory). Or viceversa. Otherwise you would tend to mix the memories and the observation will fail its purpose.

  • This article aims to summarise the findings of a very interesting research (“Observation Inflation: Your Actions Become Mine”, by I. Lindner, G. Echterhoff, P. S.R. Davidson, and M. Brand, 2010), that gives us a valid point about the way we memorise actions through imagination and observation. Does it mean that observation can substitute practice? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

In order to master a skill (action) you must practice. There are no tricks, no shortcuts. Nothing beats practice.

If you want to improve your memory regarding a specific action, though, here you have scientific evidence that shows how we produce memories by observing and imagining an action.

My tip: do not attempt any of these practices just before a live performance! These are things you want to experiment while studying, way before you have to perform in front of an audience.

But let’s say you are traveling on public transports, and meanwhile you would like to improve your memory of the repertoire you are preparing for a performance.

Watch videos of that repertoire (the ideal is to record yourself during rehearsals, so you can observe a performance whose interpretation, dynamics etc. correspond to your final performance), or listen to it while miming it. This will stick to your memory as if you actually performed!

Do you already use these techniques to improve your memory?

Leave a comment with your experience!

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