Is Dance "The Next Wave" in Cognitive Neuroscience?

In the last 10 years, music 's status within cognitive neuroscience has moved from being a fringe area to a topic of central interest to neuroscientists. Dance seems poised to be the next wave in cognitive neuroscience. And, in fact, dance takes advantage of many of the strides made by music research and combines them with notions of motor control and sensorimotor coupling that have already attracted great interest in neuroscience, such as the mirror-neuron concept.

Dance is the artform in which movement patterns themselves are what are seen as most salient. Musical production, like dance, is based on complex forms of movement and rhythmic timekeeping, and yet what matters most for observers of music is not the movement per se but the product of this movement, namely the sound generated by these actions. For dance, by contrast, it is the movement itself that is usually most salient.

That said, there are interesting comparisons between dance and music. For example, there are many forms of dance throughout the world in which dancers generate percussive sounds as a central part of their performance (e.g., Flamenco, tap dancing, Indian classical dancing). On the other side, we find the elaborate gestures made by orchestra conductors, whose movements sometimes look like something out of a tribal dance. This occurs despite the fact that the conductor is not even playing an instrument.

From the standpoint of cognitive neuroscience, dance represents a fascinating constellation of features, including several shared with music:
    Complex movement. Much motor research in cognitive neuroscience is based on simple movements, such as finger tapping, grasping, or joystick movement. Dance, by contrast, typically involves full-body movement. While all actions involve complex patterns of body movement, dance is probably the single most complex form of movement that humans engage in, although musical production probably comes close.

    Rhythmic synchronization. All forms of movement require timing as part of their planning process. But dance often requires synchronization of body movement with an external timekeeper, typically a recurrent musical beat. While evidence has emerged that a small number of non-human species can move to a beat (mainly as an artificial response to human music), humans use rhythmic synchronization in abundance in dance and music in all cultures. Since no other primate can keep the beat, entrainment must be seen as an evolutionary novelty among humans, a capacity that is employed comparably for dance and music.

    Sound generation. One feature that is critical to dance in traditional cultures across the globe is that dance tends to be a sound-generating phenomenon. In many cultures, dancers attach objects to their bodies or their clothes that allow them to make sounds when they move. In addition, people generate sounds through "body percussion" mechanisms like clapping and stomping. Dance probably evolved as a sounding phenomenon from its very beginnings, creating an essential evolutionary link between dance and music, especially percussion/rhythmic music. Dance and music are simply two different ways of creating rhythm, and in many forms of dance around the world, they are in fact the same way.

    Interpersonal contact. Musical production can involve enormous ensembles of people coordinating their parts in time, such as occurs when a large orchestra or choir performs, but this almost never involves physical contact among the performers. Dance, by contrast, often involves body contact and thus interpersonal coupling. This is an important topic in kinesiology, one that comes to the fore in the study of dance. Beyond body contact alone are the social and emotional attunement processes that accompany such physical coordination, including feelings of bonding, empathy, cooperation, social identity, and sexual attraction.

    Motor learning and imitation. Some of the most interesting research that has been conducted on the neuroscience of dance has involved the observation of dance, both by experts and by novices. This research has contributed enormously to the notion that watching a motor act that is perceived as familiar and executable stimulates not only visual parts of the brain but motor-planning areas as well. In addition, dance learning is often accomplished by means of imitation of experts, and so the neural circuits involved in imitation are well-engaged during dance learning, thereby leading to the condition in trained dancers in which observation alone can stimulate the motor system.

    Meaningful gesture and role playing. Dance dramas such as ballet can be thought of as narrative plays in the most theatrical sense of the term. In this regard, dancers not only have to produce complex motor gestures, rhythmic synchronization and physical contact but also capitalize on resources related to role playing, gesturing, and pretense. Dance dramas highlight dance's universal role as a gesture language. In such dramas, dancers dress up in costumes and play the role of characters (usually wordlessly). In addition, their movement patterns are designed to serve as meaningful gestures of a character's actions and emotional experiences. Therefore, from dance we get not only movement and rhythm but drama as well.

    Rehabilitation and therapy. Dance is being used increasingly as a therapeutic intervention for movement and coordination disorders, including Parkinson's disease and developmental coordination disorder. In addition, dance movement therapy is used as a psychotherapeutic treatment for a host of cognitive and emotional disorders, including autism, posttraumatic stress syndrome, and eating disorders. Moreover, social dancing is used as a quality-of-life activity for people suffering from syndromes like Alzheimer's disease to improve sociality and reduce loneliness.

    The neuroscience of dance is in its infancy but it has the potential to unify several domains, including motor control, rhythmic timekeeping, body contact, imitative learning, gesture production, emotional expression, and theatrical role playing, among many others. In addition, the study of dance can probably subsume the large research domain devoted to the perception and production of musical rhythm. From this perspective, musical rhythm is nothing more than a virtual dance.