Personal Health

How Dancing Boosts Brain Cells and Lifelong Learning

There's a hidden value to dancing.

Merely art? Recreation? Dance may be the Cinderella of education. About 400 studies related to interdisciplinary 21st-century neuroscience lead to the discovery that there is a hidden value to dance education for young and old alike. 

Dance is a language of physical exercise that sparks new brain cells (neurogenesis) and their connections that are responsible for acquiring knowledge and thinking. Dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network. Neural plasticity is the brain’s remarkable abil­ity to change through­out life. As a septuagenarian, I'm dancing: flamenco, belly dance, jazz, and salsa!

Dance stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. And dance is a means to help us improve mood and cope with stress that can motivate or interfere with learning. Influenced by body senses, environment and culture, the brain “choreographs” dance and more. 

The mysterious brain, probably the most complex living system in the world, hides from our sight the wondrously complex operations that underlie the feat of dance. I was surprised to witness 6,800 people fill a room at a Society for Neuroscience annual meeting to hear renowned choreographer Mark Morris field questions about creativity and the process and production of dance. Although there are many secrets to unravel about the power of the brain and dance, advances in technology, such as brain scanning techniques/experiments of dancers, dance-makers, and dance-viewers, reveal to us that dance activity registers in regions of the brain responsible for cognition.

The brain is comprised of about 100 billion electrically active cells (neurons), each connected to approximately tens of thousands of its neighbors at perhaps 100 trillion synapses (the spaces between neurons where information transfers occur between the senders and receivers). These atoms of thought relay information through voltage spikes that convert into chemical signals to bridge the gap to other neurons. All thought, movement and sensation emanate from electrical impulses coursing through the brain’s interconnected neurons. When they fire together they connect and reconnect, and the connections between them grow stronger in impacting our perception, comprehension and different kinds of memory.

If a pattern is repeated, the associ­ated group of neurons fire together resulting in a new memory, its consolidation and ease of retrieving it. Neurons can improve intellect, memory and certain kinds of learning if they join the existing neural networks instead of rattling aimlessly around in the brain for a while before dying. 

Scientists have turned to dancers creating, doing and watching, primarily not to improve dance teaching, learning and performance. Rather the researchers find dance is a rich and multifaceted source to try to understand how the brain coordinates the body to perform complex, precise movements that express emotion and convey meaning. Dancers possess an extraordinary skill set—coordination of limbs, posture, balance, gesture, facial expression, perception, and action in sequences that create meaning in time, space, and with effort. Learning a dance genre requires discipline, persistence, engagement, auditory sensibility, visual acuity, memory, and imagination. Studies explore how dancers’ brains can illuminate the relationship between experience and observation.

As a method of conveying ideas and emotions with or without recourse to sound, the language of dance draws upon similar places and education processes in the brain as verbal language. Dance feeds the brain in the process of communication. The brain does mind and consciousness, a state of mind with agency. Through dance, a person can learn about herself, including sexual, gender, ethnic, regional, national, and career identities.

We acquire knowledge and develop cognitively because dance bulks up the brain. Consequently, dance as an art in education is a good investment in well-being. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out, “Learning and creating memory are simply the process of chiseling, modeling, shaping, doing, and redoing our individual brain wiring diagrams.” The “brain that dances” is changed by it. 

Brain research has given us many insights for dance and other kinds of education. Illustratively, we can apply what psycholinguists have found about learning a second or third verbal language to learning more than one nonverbal language—that is, another dance vocabulary (gesture and locomotion) and grammar (ways movements are put together), and meaning. Children who grow up multilingual have greater brain plasticity and multitask more easily. Learning a second or third language uses parts of the brain that knowing only one’s mother tongue doesn’t. Students who learn more than one dance language not only are giving their brains and bodies a workout, they are also increasing their resources for creative dance-making.

A goal in teaching is to enhance procedural learning; that is, how to do something. In traditional approaches (blocked), the learner is encouraged to focus on mastering a particular dance movement before moving on to new problems. By comparison, varied practice (interleaving) that includes frequent changes of task so that the performer is constantly confronting novel components of the to-be-learned information is more effective. If dance education has such brain-enhancing potential to promote cognitive growth, how can it be offered?  Multiple venues range from arts magnet schools and academies to dance in regular schools K–12 and universities, studios, and community and recreation centers. 

Venues may have their own dance faculty. Performing arts organizations, nonprofit operations and dance companies offer dance education, often as partners with academic schools. Illustrative dance programs, some established in the last century but continuing to develop, show how dance education promotes skills for academe, citizenship, and the workplace. Obviously curricula and assessment vary. Dance may be a distinct per­forming art discipline with in-depth sequential exploration of a coherent body of knowledge guided by highly qualified dance teachers. Dance may also be a liberal art, complementary to or part of another subject. Brief introductions to dance may fill gaps in school curricula. Historical serendipity, leadership, teacher interest, parent involvement, and economic resources affect how youngsters experience dance.

Society privileges mental capacity—mind over matter and emotion. Talking, writing and numbers are the media of knowledge. However, we now know that dance is a language, brain-driven art, and also a creative knowledge base for learning subjects other than dance. In short, dance is a way of thinking, translating, interpreting, communicating, feeling, moving, and creat­ing. As multimedia communication that generates new brain cells and their connections, dance at any age enriches our cognitive, emotional, and physical development beyond dance to most facets of life.

Judith Lynne Hanna is author of "Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement" (2015). She is a former California-certified social studies and English teacher who has taught dance. Learn more at www.judithhanna.com.

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