On Moving Limbs, Dancing Brains, and Mind-Body Connections between Performers and Spectators

Choreographer and philosopher Ivar Hagendoorn once remarked that “The limbs move, but it is the brain that dances”. With these words, Hagendoorn resolutely places the brain on centre stage, in a domain more often associated with intangible notions of art, beauty, and creativity. These words also suggest the tantalizing possibility of turning to the 3 pound mass of protein, fat and blood securely housed within our skulls to address fundamental questions about the power and attraction of dance, to performers and spectators alike. Over the past decade, a growing number of dancers, scientists, and those of us who work within and between these domains, has been working to chart new territory in neuroscience using dance, and in dance using neuroscience. As a dancer myself who holds a day job as a cognitive neuroscientist, my primary focus here is on the utility of dance to the neuroscience domain. However, I will also touch on the relationship between dance and neuroscience from a dance perspective (acknowledging that variations on this theme have been covered in more depth by the likes of Jody Oberfelder, Siobhan Davies, Ivar Hagendoorn, and others). My aim is to present a sketch of the dance-(brain) science duets that are emerging, to spark further exchange between disciplines, and to foster a greater appreciation art-science dialogue as a means of understanding and reflecting upon the complexities of contemporary society. 

Throughout history, dance has maintained a critical presence across human cultures, defying barriers of class, race, and status. The co-evolution of dance with the human race has fueled a rich debate on the function of art and aesthetic experience, engaging numerous artists, philosophers, and, more recently, scientists. While dance shares features with other art forms, one unique attribute is that it is expressed (only) with the human body. Because of this, neuroscientists have turned to dance to help answer questions of how the brain coordinates the body to perform complex, precise, and beautiful movements, and more recently, to address why spectators feel so inclined to pay good money to watch other people move their bodies in masterful ways on stage or screen. In fact, dance just might be a close to ideal means for studying links between action, perception, and aesthethics in the human brain. This is why my team, as well as increasing numbers of others, are turning to dance as a tool to address fundamental questions about the human brain and behaviour.  

Interest among neuroscientists as well as the general public in how the brain negotiates the link between action and perception began to escalate in the early 2000s, after the well-publicized discovery of mirror neurons in the monkey brain. Venerable thinkers dating back to Aristotle, and including the likes of philosopher René Descartes and the founder of modern psychology, William James, have puzzled over how we are able to translate actions performed by others onto our own bodies. In the mid-1990s, Italians researchers discovered (almost by accident) that particular cells within the outer cortical layers of the monkey brain respond in a similar manner to actions that are both observed and performed (hence the moniker ‘mirror neuron’). This discovery kicked off a frenzy of research into shared mental processes in the human brain between actors and observers, and by the mid-2000s, several research laboratories, including the one where I was completing my PhD, began to explore how an individual’s specific action repertoire might shape or change how she or he perceives others’ actions. My colleagues and I turned to a company of contemporary dancers to investigate how the dancers’ brains changed as they learned a challenging new piece of choreography by comparing brain activity in the dancers when they watched segments of this choreography compared to similar dance movements that were not part of the new choreography. What this work revealed, as well as related experiments being run around the same time by Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Guido Orgs, and others, is that is that dancers’ brains are specifically and precisely tuned by their own movement experience. A particularly exciting aspect of the findings yielded by my team’s study is that parts of the human brain most closely associated with the discovery of mirror neurons in the monkey brain responded most robustly not just when dancers were watching movements they had practiced before, but when they watched familiar movements that they were particularly adept at performing themselves. Naturally, ideas concerning embodiment and embodied experience have been of considerable interest to artists, dancers, philosophers for centuries, and this work seemed to suggest that we can pinpoint (at least an aspect of) embodiment for highly skilled movements in the very brain regions implicated in bridging the gap between perception and action. Perhaps this seems like a terribly obvious observation, but at the time, it was an exciting discovery, and one that was made possible by pairing dance with neuroscience

Since the first few studies to use dance to address neuroscientific questions emerged in the mid-2000s, hundreds, if not thousands, have followed suit, underscoring the utility of dance for understanding interpersonal coordination, observational learning, and multi-sensory integration. Several years ago, a core group of early adopters of dance as a neuroscience tool (most of whom are both dancers and neuroscientists themselves) published a review paper that highlights the utility of dance across a number of neurocognitive domains. Moreover, one of the most exciting and important areas where dance has made substantial contributions to understanding the human brain concerns the benefits of dance in treating symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. In particular, neuroscientist and physical therapist Gammon Earhart and her colleagues have performed pioneering work using tango dancing interventions to ameliorate motor and non-motor symptoms of this neurodegenerative disease. Of course, individuals in the dance community might be familiar with the Dance for PD programme, which launched as a collaboration between Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, and now offers dance classes featuring techniques validated by over 30 peer-reviewed scientific publications for people with Parkinson’s Disease all over the world. 

These examples serve to highlight the value of dance as a medium, and dancers as artists, to scientists interested in investigating human brain function in both healthy and disease states. However, the inverse relationship is leading to exciting developments from a dance perspective as well. From choreographers creating work inspired by the human brain to dance makers entering into longstanding collaborations with neuroscientists, strict disciplinary boundaries between the arts and sciences are being bulldozed (or at least purposefully bridged) as artists and scientists seek to find common ground to inform and inspire their practice. Moreover, recent work in the domain of neuroaesthetics (a nascent discipline that seeks to chart the neurobiological foundations of aesthetic experience) has been bringing together dancers and scientists in new and exciting ways, such as the ESRC-funded transformative research project on synchrony, cooperation and performing arts. This project paired dancer and neuroscientist Guido Orgs with choreographer Matthias Sperling and ten Siobhan Davies Dance artists to explore how neuroscience, experimental psychology and choreographic practice can be brought together to yield new insights into how we experience synchronous movement, as dancers/movers or audience members.  

In terms of directions that dance and (neuro)science duets might move in the future, continued generation and support of platforms that bring together people from different disciplinary backgrounds and career stages will ensure that art-science dialogues further develop. A number of collaborative projects and networks have brought together dancers and brain and behavioural scientists to explore research questions of mutual interest, as well as to apply practice and theory from one discipline to uncover new insights in the other. These groups document the utility of such cross-disciplinary work, including the Dance Engaging Science research project sponsored by The Forsythe Company, and the AHRC-funded Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy project. Moreover, grassroots movements to bring these dialogues between dancers and scientists into the public domain, such as the AXNS Collective, will ensure that the challenges and triumphs of bridging these seemingly disparate disciplines have the opportunity to inform and be further informed by an engaged and thoughtful public audience. This should bring the added benefit of contributing to a society-level appreciation that discovery and creativity can take place anywhere, generated by anyone, and are not simply the preserve of artists or scientists.