Dance and Neurobiology

We have gained some knowledge about the neurobiological processes operating during creativity and great understanding about how movement is organized. We know that our brain is biased to respond to sensory stimuli, especially sensing motion in others, whether it is a baby responding to the loving smile of a mother, a child imitating the actions of older children, adults empathically engaging with others, or members of a social gathering swaying and rocking to music. These responses are classified as fixed action patterns; they are phylogenetically innate neural network patterns of behavior that integrate movement and emotional activation. When we participate in movement sequences that are intrinsically congruent with the outside world we experience a knowing that is personal and individual. The sensori-motor-emotional associational regions of our brain and body are designed to resonate with the actions of others. We engage in mind-body experiences that are always immediate and visceral and when aesthetic intention is added to movement, dance emerges.

Science now confirms that we have multiple neural maps of our body that react in real time while anticipating future actions and intentions. Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, in their book, The Body has a Mind of Its Own, clearly describe how our brain maintains body-maps that extend and blend into space. In short, our self does not end where our flesh ends, but extends and blends with the world, including other beings. They describe this as peripersonal space, a flexible elastic auralike space that expands and contracts to meet our goals and needs. Our perceptions of our body expand while driving a car, holding an object, in an embrace, or dancing with another. Our profoundly plastic body-maps are located throughout our body (skin surfaces, joints, and muscles) and our brain (central, autonomic, and peripheral nervous systems). This allows for complex dynamic engagement with the world and an embodied sense of agency and meaning.

Our body schema (a felt sense based on physical properties of our body) is ideally matched with our body image (learned attitudes about our body). In dance this is one of the most delicate convergences because many trained dancers acquire great skill at managing body schema activations; however, their body image may become distorted by the ideal notion of what a dancer's body is to resemble. Body schemas operate almost entirely outside of our conscious awareness. For example: (a) proprioception (meaning perception of one's own) provides a sense of body motion, (b) the vestibular system provides a spatial awareness while we are moving, (c) our senses of touch, sight, sound, and smell provide further information, and (d) muscle memory (procedural memory) facilitates an organized and coherent motor action. Multiple regions within our brain coordinate our body schemas and organize and mobilize conscious and unconscious intentional actions. What is most intriguing is that our perceptions of the world and our actions are primarily predictive. Our brain is constantly creating models of our body and the world, continually updating these models as new information is received and extrapolating and predicting action intentions so that we can effectively respond. For great dancers and athletes this predictive power is what gives them a decided advantage over those with less neurologically dynamic body schema facility. In fact, research studies have shown that physical practice maintains and may even improve cognitive ability. According to Glenna Batson, a dance scientist and physical therapist, through dance training, accuracy of proprioceptive inputs are strengthened. This suggests that dancers develop an augmented inner body sense compared to nondancers. Research findings also demonstrate that when greater technical skill level is attained, brain activation is more efficient and precise. As a result of long hours of training, the modifications to body schemas are rapid and require less metabolic energy. These findings explain why beginners may get discouraged; they employ more brain activation and achieve less accurate body schema feedback. Only with practice does this improve. The brain manages the learning of new skills much differently than the activation of old skills. This is precisely why Twyla Tharp claimed that creativity must be a habit and why dancers around the world know that they must dance regularly if they wish to dance with ease.

The discovery of mirror neurons is one of the most intriguing neuroscientific findings, especially when applied to our growing understanding about how dance engages others. These specialized neurons, located in major cortical regions of the brain, allow us to mimic an action that is performed in front of us. They rapidly link perception, action, and intention in order to facilitate the acquisition of new motor behaviors. Not only do these mirror neurons help us learn new skills but they also form strong neural circuits as we practice and witness these skills. Perhaps this is why members of an audience who have danced gain greater pleasure when watching others dance and why they are less kinesthetically involved when they watch football players. Mirror neurons help us learn and they improve with practice. Along with mirror neurons we are also neurobiologically biased to empathically sense the emotional state of others. Even in newborn infants this ability is evident. When one baby cries in the nursery a contagion effect results and soon all will be crying. The limbic regions in the brain detect the emotional states of others and mobilize actions and intentions that are congruent. This is why we can laugh with another and why we feel sad when someone else is crying. Further, as we respond emotionally, our interoceptive awareness activates visceral sensations. We can feel light-hearted or sick to our stomach when we experience emotional states. The insula, a region situated between the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, and other subcortical regions, integrates emotional, motor and somatic signals allowing us the capacity to fully feel what is happening around us. Our body schemas blend with our interoceptive and emotional sensations and they all give us appropriate feedback so that we can engage effectively. These felt exchanges occur between dancers and between dancers and their audiences.

Our brains are wired so that we can effectively interact with our environment. Dance, as an activity and as an art form, engages these social neurobiological systems. For the dance creator these complex neurobiological processes are embedded within the tapestry of the creative imagination. Howard Gardner suggested that dance artists may have greater kinesthetic intelligence. This may be in part because they have trained and refined their body schema systems, systems that include mirror neurons and interoception. Neurobiological processes that operate during the creative moments of dance are rich resources that are enhanced by training, and heightened by flexible and fluid state shifts that adapt and respond to the demands of the creative moment.

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