From the Archives and Beyond: The Dancing Brain

lab-solo-20040117Economist Ivar Hagendoorn’s fascination with dance led to a decade of neuroscience research, described in his 2003 essay in our Cerebrum journal. In  “The Dancing Brain” he argues that while it is the limbs that move, it is the brain that is dancing:

Reading and thinking for several years about what we find interesting when we watch someone dance brought me no closer to understanding what I saw on stage. At some point it struck me that this was the wrong track. Everything we see, hear, feel and do is mediated by the brain. To understand what fascinated and literally moved me in watching dance, we have to look to the brain.

While many in neuroscience focus on “beauty” when analyzing art and our response to it, there are many other questions we can ask. For example, how do our “slow” brains cope with lightning-fast movements? How do we “imagine” motor movements? How does an audience know to appreciate one movement over another? How can movement itself be made interesting enough to hold our attention?

The idea that the appreciation of dance has something to do with the interplay of expectations and their fulfillment has antecedents in other fields. For example, the same interplay has been proposed as an explanation for music and for humor. Indeed, what I here call the sublime may be similar to what some people describe as “chills” or “shivers down the spine” at certain moments during particular pieces of music. Neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre recently investigated the neural mechanisms of this phenomenon in a neuroimaging study at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University. They found that the intensity of the “chills” correlated with increased activity in brain regions associated with emotion and arousal. Interestingly the map of activation overlaps considerably with the one that, based on a survey of the literature, I myself have sketched for the perception of dance. This may also explain why music and dance mix so well: A buildup of expectation on an auditory level can find its realization on a visual level. The final moments in many ballets are either a concurrence of exaltation in both sound and movement or the opposite, a slow fading away…

Perhaps the best example of a radical disruption of our expectations is at one of those unfortunate moments in a ballet when a dancer falls. Instantly, a sigh goes through the audience, while those who were focusing on something else wonder what happened. What is more, because we know that falling hurts, we can empathize with the dancer, a feeling that has been hypothesized to be mediated by mirror neurons.  But here is the interesting part: A choreographer who understands this can put it to creative use by having a dancer intentionally drop to the floor. One of ballet’s popular legends is that when one of the dancers fell during the rehearsals for Serenade (1935), Balanchine liked the effect so much that he decided to incorporate the fall in the ballet.

The year after this essay came out, Hagendoorn organized a symposium on the Brain and Dance, held in Frankfurt, Germany [here’s a write-up (PDF)]. He also came full circle in his consideration of movement, mind, and dance: He started to choreograph dances. The year after this essay came out, he created a work with the Frankfurt Ballet, “Communications from the Lab.” Here’s one part of it:

Find more sections and the story behind them at the Communications from the Lab page on Since then, he’s choreographed other works, as well; see more at his Dance page

—Nicky Penttila

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