Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Neural Basis of Dance: Lecture by Dr. Steven Brown

4th Annual Music and the Mind Workshop, McMaster University
November 29, 2008

The conference entitled “Musical Connections in the Brain: Language, Dance and the Visual Arts” was fascinating and stimulating. It was once again a treat to hear musicians, dancers, psychologists, and neuroscientists in one room discussing key musical issues, including neural correlates of artistic processes and their biological evolution.

Dr. Steven Brown, professor in the department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University gave a lecture entitled The Neural Basis of Dance. In his lecture, he described how he conducted the first neuroimaging study of dance. Dr. Brown chose a small sample of 10 people (I believe they were recruited from his salsa class) and he examined activity in their brains with an fMRI as they traced dance patterns with their feet.

Dance is a kinaesthetic art form. Dance steps are movements that involve complex sequencing, somewhat like language. Accordingly, it was shown that leg movement can activate Broca’s area, the brain center for language processing. In addition, meter, defined as regular equal-time pattern of movement, corresponds with activity in the basal ganglia. However, synchronized movement with a timekeeper, what Dr. Brown referred to as entrainment, is correlated with activity in the cerebellum (specifically the spinocerebellum). Entrainment to a beat is quite rare among species; it is limited to birds and humans. Dr. Brown proposes a “low road hypothesis” that dance movement is controlled primarily by the thalamus and cerebellum, possibly bypassing the cortex.

Dr. Brown also hypothesized the origins of dance. The first hypothesis maintains that it evolved at first from a form of body percussion or movement that created sound. In this method, dance and music co-evolved. The second hypothesis was that dance was used as a gesture language, a narrative device.

I found the talk very interesting, particularly the hypothesis that dance originated as a form of body percussion. After hearing about the intimate evolutionary relationship between movement and music, I can see why methods of musical education that involve movement and gesture are so effective. Dancing and gesturing to music help to internalize the tempo, rhythm, and motion, all the elements that make up the expressive character of the music. Not only do musical features mimic these expressive gestures, widely understood across cultures, but they seem to coincide with evolutionary roots in all of us.

1 comment:

Sharon Dutton said...

Hi Andrea - I note the hypothesis on the origins of dance - that it could have evolved as body percussion, movement creating sounds ... I never heard or thought that before. (duhh) My first response is, that could be why many cultures use the same word, when we use two, for music and dance... as if they are the same thing. Music that includes accompaniment, perhaps clapping, necessarily includes body movements to produce those sounds... Not a sophisticated form of dance, but movement nevertheless... if we exaggerate the movement required to clap (as I often do to 'feel' the metre), perhaps adding a sway (and that feels good and right to do that to me) it becomes a dance of the upper body?? and, if we add a bounce, (as toddlers like to do), and a swing, or a sway, and let our feet step to the beat while swaying... especially while clapping on the 'off-beats', then there's a dance...