Written by Alan Barker: writer, academic proofreader, coach and training consultant. Find out more about his work here.

Consider the humble sea squirt. As a juvenile, it swims around doing what most juveniles do: seeking food and avoiding predators. When the time comes to put down roots, it finds a suitable piece of real estate on the sea bed, eats its own brain and settles to a permanently sedentary life.

Moral: brains evolved primarily to help organisms move. In humans – and other animals – that function has become social. We watch others moving and coordinate our movements with theirs.

How do our brains translate observation into action? Emily Cross, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the School of Psychology at Bangor University, stands in a long line of thinkers studying this question: among them, Aristotle, Descartes, William James and Roger Sperry. One of the most significant discoveries was made, accidentally, by Giacomo Rizolatti. In 1996, his work with Macaque monkeys revealed the existence of mirror neurons, which fired both when the monkey was performing an action and when it observed a researcher doing the same thing. At last, it seemed, the missing neural link between perception and action had been found.

Since then, neuroscience has begun to explore an Action Observation Network or AON in the brain. When we perceive movement, the brain computes in all sorts of ways, asking, “Can I do that, have I seen it before, and do I enjoy watching it?” Emily studies experience-dependent nervous plasticity: the way the network alters as we learn new movements. Because she’s a professional dancer as well as a scientist, her chosen field of study is choreography. “Dance is really good for studying those links,” she says, “because it’s not goal-directed; it’s movement for movement’s sake, so we get to study movement in a really pure, distilled way.”  Dance, being a whole-body activity, also extends research beyond the work on hands and fingers that has dominated the field thus far.

How to gather the data? We can’t directly isolate mirror neurons in human brains, and MRI scanners demand almost complete immobility. Emily and her team infer the workings of the AON by scanning the parts of the brain involved when we observe, learn and perform dance moves. (Cue audience stretching and shimmying to Donna Summers; even the lady who later admitted she couldn’t do the Twist produced admirable results.)

In the lab, Emily and her team ask people to learn various routines, and use Xbox Kinect systems to record their movements. “We always try to tie the results back into your actual performance,” she explained. “We’re not looking at it just as a perceptual task: we get perceptual measures, but also physical measures and brain measures.” Observational learning helps us learn and refine physical skills even more effectively if combined with experiential learning: watching and doing together reinforce the new neural networks.

But Emily takes her work further: she wants to know how this embodied cognition affects our emotional and aesthetic response to dance. The relatively new field of neuroaesthetics has so far concentrated mainly on the visual arts: Emily’s work, principally with Motion Bank, a project with The Forsythe Company, extends the field into performance art.

Sometimes, we like to watch what we can’t do. When untrained people watch dance movements that they really like, parts of the mid-brain light up that are associated with emotional, even visceral, pleasure. After training, the response becomes more subtle, activating regions further out in the cortex associated with multi-sensory integration. “We get a real difference,” Emily told us, “in how pleasure in encoded before and after learning experience.” That finding might benefit both science and performance practice, helping dancers to challenge audiences in new ways, and helping audiences bring more to performance.

Emily’s work might have useful therapeutic applications: for example, in stroke recovery. But the most striking take-away from her whirlwind performance was the reminder that embodied cognition is fundamental to our experience of the world. I move, therefore I am.

Read an interview with Emily Cross here.

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