Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

The limbs move but the brain dances.  Emily Cross, recipient of this year’s Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture for Science and the Arts, wants to understand the link between the brain and dancing. She told Alan Barker more.

Your talk title, ‘Getting in the “Neural Groove”’, strongly suggests the connection between science and art that the Jacob Bronowski Award celebrates. How does your work demonstrate that connection?

In Los Angeles, I did my undergraduate studies in neuroscience, psychology, dance and theatre, and I finished with psychology and dance as my majors. Since then, I’ve gone on to focus on cognitive neuroscience academically, but I’ve also danced professionally, before, during and after completing my PhD.  Right now, I’m dancing a bit, but I’m at Bangor University and the dance opportunities in North Wales are not quite so...  you know! 

The real link is in what we call nervous system plasticity.  I’m interested in how experience shapes perception, and how we learn how to do new things, especially actions.

Why dance?  Why not something simpler?

Near the beginning of my PhD, I was performing with a contemporary dance company and had the idea to study my fellow dancers while we were all learning a very complex new piece of choreography.  Since then, I’ve been doing research to address fundamental questions about how we learn movements from watching versus doing, how experts perceive actions differently than novices, and more recently, what’s going on in the brain when we have aesthetically pleasing experiences of seeing other people moving.  So I’m not just using dance as a tool to understand how we learn, but also as an art form to understand how we appreciate art as humans.

How do you look at what’s going on in the brain while people are dancing?

We use MRI scanners a lot in neuroscience, but obviously you can’t scan someone’s brain when they are dancing!  So we invite people into the lab and teach them how to dance. Most recently, we have been using Xbox Kinect systems to quantify their movements.  Then we study their brain activity while they’re watching these dance movements, before and after training – so we get really nice measures of how their brains have changed with experience. We are particularly interested in observational learning, so if you learn how to dance a piece, or watch someone else learn how to dance it, how do these two different kinds of learning change your brain?  And then we always try to tie our neuroscience measures back to our participants’ actual performance.  So we’re not looking at dance strictly in the perceptual domain: we get perceptual measures, but also physical measures and brain measures.

What you’re describing makes me think of mirror neurons.  Is that right?

Yes!  We know that at least since Aristotle’s time, humans have wondered how we can transform perception into action. Then in 1996, researchers performing monkey neurophysiology research said “We’ve found it: we’ve found neurons in the primate brain that respond in a similar manner to actions we perform and those we perceive.” These neurons were subsequently dubbed ‘mirror neurons’,  and their discovery absolutely inspired me to get into this research.  While there’s no question that mirror neurons are part of the mechanism that I am studying with dancers in my research, I feel that we’ve reached and passed ‘peak mirror neurons’.  They were a very exciting discovery in the mid 90s (discovered almost by accident, if you hear Prof. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma describe it), and they were all the rage for a while, being  suggested a mechanism underpinning all sorts of social and behavioural abilities and disorders in the human brain. The simple, elegant discovery of mirror neurons was probably way over-extended.  Now, we have many new useful brain and behavioural tools at our disposal that we can use to explore the complex and interesting links between perception and action in the brain- it doesn’t all start and end with mirror neurons.  And I would argue that dance is really good for studying those links, because in many ways, dance is movement for movement’s sake, so we get to study movement in a really pure, distilled way.

What are you going to do in your event?

Well, I’m particularly interested in observational learning, so I definitely want to try to get people dancing. I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself!   I’ve done similar kinds of activities in places like the Edinburgh International Science Festival and people – even though they were British! –did get up and dance.  I know we have limited space in the Attenborough Centre Auditorium to have folks learn any proper, whole-body dance movements, so I’ll probably stick to choreography that’s easy to do from your chair (Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Chair Pillow’ dance, anyone?) I would like to get people to learn some really simple choreography.  It’s a nice interactive way to explore how action and perception are linked in the brain from a first-person perspective.

Getting in the ‘Neural Groove’ is on Friday 8 September at 12.30.  Book your FREE tickets on the British Science Festival website.