Today marks the beginning of National Dance Week here in Canada, so I thought it would be fun to write about the neuroscience of dance!
Dancing beautifully integrates complex movement and motor learning, rhythmic musical synchronization, creative emotional expression, and interpersonal communication.
Because of this complexity, studying the neural basis of dance is a challenge – but one with important implications.
Uncovering the neural mechanisms of dance can offer insight into the most complex workings of the human brain, revealing applications to rehabilitation and therapy. It’s even suggested by some to be part of the “next wave” in neuroscience, studying complex behaviour like art rather than simpler phenomenon.
So how do we study the neuroscience of dance?
One study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in 2006 revealed how various parts of the brain are active during dance. 1 Researchers had amateur tango dancers lay flat on their backs while in a ‘functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging‘ (fMRI) machine to see what brain areas were active during particular tasks.
The dancers feet were resting against an inclined surface so that movements and dance steps could be performed. The music used during the experiment was tango, and the dancers performed tango steps.
The study investigated three aspects of dancing:
- synchronizing movement with music,
- moving with a regular vs. irregular rhythm, and
- moving the legs in particular patterns though space.
As expected, the usual areas of the brain involved in movement were active during all experimental tasks (as opposed to resting).
Here’s what the researchers made of the findings:
- Primary Motor Cortex – Send neural impulses to activate muscles.
- Somatosensory Cortex – Body sensation – important for feeling movements.
- Premotor Cortex – Preparation of direction and spatial aspects of movement, and trunk control.
- Supplementary Motor Cortex – Planning sequences of movement and coordinating both sides.
- Cerebellum (Lobules IV & VII) – Coordinating leg muscles during cyclical movements.
- Right Frontal Operculum – Involved in movement sequencing.
- Cingulate Motor Area – Movement intention and allocation of resources.
In addition, dancing also activated many brain areas not usually involved in movement.
What might these additional brain areas do?
- Superior Temporal Gyrus – Processing of heard music.
- Putamen – Select and organize movements that have predictability or regularity, such as rhythmic movements.
- Thalamus – Link sensory and motor information during unfamiliar or irregular rhythms.
- Medial Geniculate Nucleus – Send beat information to the Cerebellum.
- Cerebellum (Lobules III, V & VI) – Help synchronize movement with music.
- Superior Parietal Lobule – Using sensed movements (kinesthesia) to help guide leg movements.
Clearly, even simple dance movements – performed lying down with just the legs – requires a complex interaction of many areas of the brain – a “dance neural network”!
Remember, this study involved very simple movements. It’s not unreasonable to expect much more of the brain to be active during real dancing – such as during partner dancing, freestyle, or competition.
Imagine how complex things get with street dancers during a battle – where dancers are responding to each other with strategies, complex gestures, and their best performance possible. This would likely involve more areas for visual processing, planning and decision making, and making associations and learning.
The fact that dancers had to lay still with their heads in an fMRI machine while only moving their feet makes this study less than perfect. However, until research technology improves substantially, it will be difficult to perform a better study than this. In the future, it will be very interesting to see what’s happening in the brain when dancers are standing up and actually moving across a floor and throughout space freely.
Personally, I’m very interested in what’s happening in the brain when a dancer is truly free-styling, letting the music move them, feeling the energy of others, and experiencing “flow” – which is, to me, the most genuine form of dance. What processes work to cause such experiences to emerge? How does that work?
It’s likely that we are far from understanding.
For now, just enjoy dancing! It’s good for your brain!
Brown S, Martinez MJ, & Parsons LM (2006). The neural basis of human dance. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991), 16 (8), 1157-67 PMID: 16221923