Bad dancers, take note! It may not be your fault that you can’t keep a beat to the latest Rihanna song – you may have a mild brain disorder akin to tone deafness.
Researchers at the University of Montreal have been working with a man who is unable to clap or bounce to the beat of a song. According to the Science News report, the investigators hypothesize that “the young man’s beat deafness arises from disconnects in a widespread brain network involved in musical beat, rhythm and meter.” They believe the disorder is “specific to music and quite rare.”
Obviously this is an extremely limited study that requires further research, but I was intrigued because I have a friend who suffers from the same “beat handicap.” She has always shied away from dancing and is unable to clap a song’s rhythm or bounce to a beat independently.
So, why are brain researchers interested in studying our ability to dance, anyway? Just to name a few areas of interest, a much publicized study from last September tied dance ability to attraction (for the record, I actually preferred the “bad” dancing avatar to the “good”); a 2009 Cerebrum article investigated what dance can teach us about learning; and a Discover magazine interview published last week explores how humans may use dancing to create social bonds.
The interview notes that no other species have the ability to dance, and neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, interviewed for the piece, discusses his research into how our ability to dance evolved. He hypothesizes that a species needs a “vocal-learning brain to be able to move to a beat…but that it’s also important to have a brain that seeks out tight social bonds.”
Explaining the inner working of our brains, he says,
Because of [connections between auditory centers and motor planning regions] we seem to use the motor system to actually predict the timing of rhythmic and periodic sounds. When people perceive sound with a beat, even when they aren’t moving, fMRI scans show activation in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor areas. It’s almost as if we’re using our motor system to hear the beat.
This ability to predict the beat is what sets us apart from most other species, explains Patel. He cites a research study in Mexico, in which for two years, scientists attempted to train monkeys to tap to a beat. Despite the length of the training, the monkeys always reacted and therefore responded 200 to 300 milliseconds late.
This human ability certainly explains how people can quickly pick up on the rhythm of a song they have never heard before.
So, the next time you’re dancing at a wedding, a club, or just around the house, there’s a lot to think about!
–Ann L. Whitman