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.