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Brain on Dance

"Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made." 
- Ted Shawn, American modern dance pioneer

For timely tweets and relevant tidbits about dancing and brains, follow Emily on Twitter @brain_on_dance!

Brain on Dance

You might have noticed that quite a bit of research that goes on in Dr. Cross's wing of the SoBA Lab involves the perception or performance of dance.  Here in the SoBA Lab, we use dance as a means of addressing complex questions of action cognition for several reasons.  Dance requires a great degree of coordination not only between the different limbs of the body, but also between perception and action, as well as time and space.  As an example, many dancers can relate to the experience of showing up to a technique class in a new studio, progressing with ease through the warm up or barre exercises, and then being expected to perfectly perform long, complex sequences of steps that have been rapidly demonstrated in the most cursory manner.  This ability to transform scant visual or verbal information into highly precise, sophisticated movements is of great value to scientists, as it can help us to more fully understand how movement is learned, remembered, and reproduced. Not only can scientists learn about the coordination and expression of complex actions by quantifying dancers’ behavioral performance, but careful measurement of how such skilled actions are perceived and represented at the neural level can shed light on the underlying biological architecture that supports learning of complex action with limited information. 

It is important to note that at its essence, our laboratory’s work with dance is still basic science research. “Dance neuroscience” research did not necessarily stem from a desire to investigate how the experience of being a dancer influences the brain.  Rather, neuroscientists have turned to dancers as a valuable human resource in possession of a rich skill set that can be studied to address broadly relevant issues of how the human brain coordinates perception with action. Findings from this basic research have the potential to inform the way dancers and dance instructors approach their work, as well as how audiences perceive and appreciate dance as a performance art (see some of our publications on expertise & neuroaesthetics for more discussion).  Neuroscientists’ fascination with dancers will undoubtedly continue, as we seek to further characterize the sophisticated neural structure that underlies the complex choreography between action and perception. 

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