Transcript for Frank Browning on the Dancing Brain

Poke around in the far reaches of brain science and you’ll find all sorts of fascinating research. Believe it or not, there are even some neuroscientists trying to figure out what happens in your brain when you dance. Producer, Frank Browning, has this report.

Frank Browning: If you’re old enough, you probably remember this: Gene Kelly’s just dropped off his new girlfriend at her apartment; raindrops start falling, folds up his umbrella and splashes down the street, puddle to puddle. Seems crazy, but he’s delirious and so are we. Just watching you can’t keep your feet still. Same thing watching John Travolta slithering over the lighted dance floor in Saturday Night Fever or the Dixie Chicks romping in Gotta Dance.  Awhile ago, when I was in New York, I took the bouncing Broadway Subway up to see my friend, John Krakauer. John is a neuroscientist who had just written a piece for Scientific American about what happens in our brains when we dance. First thing I asked him was, “Why do people dance?”“Sex,” he said. “Itprobably has something to do with sex.”For instance, take the Tango.

John Krakauer: The Tango is about disguising the pickup of a prostitute. I mean, we talk about love songs, we talk about duets, we talk about ballads, um, all of them have mating in mind. So, perhaps, um, what we’re seeing is a mating requirement that has been perfectly fused with dancing music. Certainly when you the watch the people in dance clubs, in fact the dance itself looks like copulation.

Browning: In fact, many anthropologists think the origins of dance lie way back in our primitive ancestors’ mating rituals. When you think about it, that makes some sense. Dance reveals physical beauty, dance demonstrates physical prowess.  Dance sets out clear rules of pursuit. But, why do dancers think we dance? And what do they think dance is? One of Europe’s most interesting dancer choreographers lives in France and collaborates with a neuroscience lab in Lyon. [Michel Aguillon] started his career 30 years ago, studying in New York with Merce Cunningham.

[Michel Aguillon]: The consciousness of moving makes dance.  Merce Cunngham says that, “When you walk, and you know that you walk, you are dancing.”

Browning: Well, when I shuffle, or stumble, down the street I have a hard time believing anybody would call that dancing. Yet choreographer, [Aguillon], and his neuroscience colleagues take the idea even further. “Anyone who is alive and moves is dancing,” he says, “whether she knows it or not.”“Our bodies and our brains are linked in such a way,” he says, “that to live is to dance.”My friend, John Krakauer, believesit’s all about the roots of pleasure. As a scientist, he starts with some very basic questions.

Krakauer: Why should movement itself be enjoyable? Is movement itself, when we move, enjoyable and then why should movement of others be enjoyable?

Browning: A lot of neuroscientists have wondered about that and some have even wired up their subjects to MRI sensors to find out what happens just from watching dancers. Ballet dancers, salsa dancers, hip hoppers; it turns out the same pleasure centers in their brains light up just from watching, even though, at the time, they’re perfectly still. “What a surprise,” you might say. “Dancing makes us feel good.” It feels great to get out onthe dance floor and shake your bootie and, as the producers of So You Think You Can Dance could tell us, it also feels good to sit at home on your couch and watch other people dance on television. The reason, Krakauer says, involves something called mirror neurons.

Krakauer: Mirror neurons are these neurons that seem to be a subset of neurons in pre-motor regions and parietal regions, which are two parts of the brain, that seem to be both active when a particular form of action is performed by the observer and when that action is performed by someone else and is observed. And that’s led to all number of theories as to what these neurons might be about; the origins of gesture, how we imitate and even the basis of empathy.

Browning: Back in Lyon, I’m sitting with neurologist, Marc Jeannerod, watching [Michel Aguillon] rehearse his dance troop. Their spines arch backward, their legs splay outward, they twist their shoulders and hips and necks into tangled knots; sliding in groups across the floor. Jeannerod leans over to comment.

Jeannerod: All those movements are [unnatural] so you have to learn them to adapt your body to because it’s really a challenge for (unintelligible), so you have to anchor these movements into mental processes, then you can rehearse. And most of these people they rehearse mentally before they do the movements.

Browning: It’s a question of training the brain?

Jeannerod : It’s a question of brain training, yeah.

Browning: Then, Marc Jeannerod proposed an even more radical notion. He thinks nearly all intentional movement depends on rhythm, just like dance. For instance, he said, “Listen closely he next time you’re at a homebuilding site where carpenters are pounding nails.”Fred Astaire,it’s not, but you can still hear the rhythm of the hammers.

Aguillon: All that is dancing.

Browning:  “All that is dancing,” added Michel Aguillon. “Indeed”, he says, “even standing still is akind of dancing.”

Aguillon: Sometimes we get crazy; because we say things which are not logical today. For instance, when you want to stay in a balance.

Browning: That is, stay perfectly still.

Aguillon: Is say, stay in an unbalance because I feel in my body that if you stay balanced you stretch muscles, you concentrate in the center of the body, and you cannot move anymore. And you have to find every second, every half second, this feeling of unbalance which stays your balance.

Browning: To illustrate the body’s perpetual oscillation between balance and imbalance, [Bach Chambord] once filmed a ballerina with her legs stretched firm and seeming to stand absolutely still.

Aguillon: He explained to the people who were working with him, “Look at her.”And she was still like that, moving a little bit like that, becausethis is the work of the brain.

Jeannerod: The role of the brain is to dominantly monitor the center of mass of the body and to introduce minimal corrections to the leg muscles so that you minimize your [sedations] on the ankles.

Browning: Marc Jeannerod says that when we are standing upright we are always like in inverted pendulum in perpetual oscillation. At some level all of this probably sounds commonsensical. To survive, all animals, ourselves included, must move. To move effectively, we have to practice; whether it’s for play, seduction, war, or art. And that practice is the business of our brains. As [Michel Aguillon] would say, “We exist because we dance.”Andwe never stop dancing, until we draw our last concluding breath. For To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I’m Frank Browning.


Comments for this interview

Why We Dance (Barbara Fay, 04/08/2013 - 9:14am)

Right on, Maggie.

dancing (helen elizabeth, 07/03/2012 - 6:17pm)

to me is permission to move
any which way
without being labeled a nut

Why We alternate viewpoint (Maggy Graham, 04/16/2012 - 1:15pm)

Neurons as the source of artistic expression? Body chemistry and the desire to procreate dictating the impulse to dance, as proven by the fact that the tango is sensual?

I started dancing when I was four or five years old. Trust me, it had nothing to do with sex. Back then it was all about fantasy. Tina the Ballerina was my favorite record, where Tina saves the day when the prima dona can’t perform. Tina runs up from the back of the auditorium and says, “Wait! Wait! I can dance in her place!” The dancer was a heroine.

As I grew in the art form, I discovered that achieving competence in in dance gave me great pleasure and self respect. It also made my personal space huge. It was a sublime experience. I couldn’t articulate any of those concepts or begin to understand them, but as an adult, that is my assessment as to what was happening as a child.

When I began dancing with the opposite sex, the great affinity created between two people engaged in art together was a huge bonus. Dancing with a partner is all physics and math, calculated at genius speed, without thought. A combination of athletics and art. And just damn fun.

It had a lot in common with my experience accompanying my sister on the piano while she played the violin, and then again when I played in the flute in the symphony. It was as if we operated in the realm of spirits occupying the same space, so much in communication that we could anticipate each other’s movements to the nanosecond, and create aesthetics as one. Again, sublime.

As an older adult, I know now exactly what I experienced with dance. Dance is an ecstatic art form. It is spiritual. It is an out-of-body experience. And ultimately, like any great art form, it reminds us of who we really are – what our true nature is -- a creator. Great art inspires us to create further.

Your expert might say, aha! That can lead to sex! But then, so does too many beers. Saying that sex is what drives dance is to report that the world is black, white and shades of gray. My response is that those are merely the shadows cast by artists conceiving of and painting a full-color universe.

The performer is elevated into the stratosphere by the dance. The viewer resonates and is also elevated. And yes, this event no doubt lights up this or that part of the brain. But from my viewpoint, it is the spirit who creates; the neurons merely register and facilitate the creating. And by “spirit,” I mean “life force, separate from, but inhabiting and controlling the body and mind.” In other words, the being in the body.

A materialist will adamantly claim that this is all a graceful illusion created by the miracles of brain chemistry, that life force is all a product of matter. That is the great debate of the ages, which we won’t solve here. But your story presented only one side, and presented it as fact.

Your expert’s take on dance felt muddled and “stretched to fit,” like someone who stands on the sidelines trying to explain to himself what it is all about. I hope one day he is graced by the exhilarating, out-of-the-body experience possible with dance. I suspect it would not change his materialist dogma, but he might be pleasantly surprised at how much bigger his personal space will feel.

Maggy Graham, Dunedin, FL