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Is Dance “The Next Wave” in Cognitive Neuroscience?

Dancing stimulates the brain in interesting ways.

By Steven Brown, Ph.D.

In the last 10 years, music's status within cognitive neuroscience has moved from being a fringe area to a topic of central interest to neuroscientists. Dance seems poised to be "the next wave" in cognitive neuroscience. And, in fact, dance takes advantage of many of the strides made by music research and combines them with notions of motor control and sensorimotor coupling that have already attracted great interest in neuroscience.

Dance is the artform in which movement patterns are what are seen as most salient. As with dance, musical production is based on complex forms of movement and rhythmic timekeeping, and yet what matters most for observers of music is not the movement per se but the product of this movement, namely the sound generated by these actions. For dance, by contrast, it is the movement itself that is most salient.

From the standpoint of cognitive neuroscience, dance represents a fascinating constellation of features:

Complex movement. Much motor research in cognitive neuroscience is based on simple movements, such as finger tapping, grasping, or joystick movement. Dance, by contrast, typically involves full-body movement. While all actions involve complex patterns of body movement, dance is probably the single most complex form of movement that humans engage in.
Rhythmic synchronization. All forms of movement require timing as part of their planning process, but dance often requires synchronization of body movement with an external timekeeper, typically a recurrent musical beat.

Interpersonal contact. Musical production can involve enormous ensembles of people coordinating their parts in time, but this almost never involves physical contact among the performers. Dance, by contrast, often involves body contact and thus interpersonal coupling. In addition to that are the social and emotional attunement processes that accompany such physical coordination, including feelings of bonding, empathy, cooperation, and social identity.

Motor learning and imitation. Some of the most interesting research that has been conducted on the neuroscience of dance has involved the observation of dance, both by experts and by novices. This research has contributed to the notion that watching a motor act that is perceived as familiar and executable stimulates not only visual parts of the brain but motor-planning areas as well. In addition, dance learning is often accomplished by means of imitation of experts, and so the neural circuits involved in imitation are well-engaged during dance learning, thereby leading to the condition in trained dancers in which observation alone can stimulate the motor system.

Meaningful gesture and role playing. Dance dramas such as ballet can be thought of as narrative plays in the most theatrical sense of the term. In this regard, dancers have to capitalize on resources related to role playing, gesturing, and pretense. Dance dramas highlight dance's universal role as a gesture language. A dancer's movement patterns are designed to serve as meaningful gestures of a character's actions and emotional experiences.

The neuroscience of dance is in its infancy but it has the potential to unify several domains, including motor control, rhythmic timekeeping, body contact, imitative learning, gesture production, emotional expression, and theatrical role playing, among many others.

Steven Brown, Ph.D. teaches at McMaster University

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