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Mirror Neurons in the Brain

How They Help Dancers As They Train

by Meagan Simpson

June 2008

[Recent research has identified a process within the complex human brain and body relationship that helps explain how dancers can learn.]

With the growing popularity of dance and its many styles in Australia  – thanks to the hit television show “So You Think You Can Dance” – we have all seen the physical effort put in by the dancers every week to perform a dance routine.

However have you ever thought about the effort the dancer’s brain applies in order for them to be able to create these movements? How do dancers’ brains process information, and can this help with learning new choreography?

In order to establish this we first must recognise the higher process which go on inside the body which create movement which we call dance.

Brain process’ to create movement

First, the music provides means of stimuli, which is received by the Primary Auditory Cortex, found in the temporal lobe (positioned at the bottom of brain near the ear). The auditory cortex is the most highly organised unit that process’ auditory stimuli in the brain. It is further split into three (3) separate parts, the primary, secondary and tertiary auditory cortex. The primary cortex when associated with music detects pitch and loudness, the secondary cortex then distinguishes harmony, rhythm and melody, followed by the tertiary cortex which puts them all together to create what we perceive as music.

The auditory cortex then sends information via neurons (messengers) to the prefrontal cortex found in the frontal lobe of the brain. Here the executive decisions are made. The brain will decide what to do now that it has heard the music – will it move the body, and if so, how? The frontal lobe then activates the motor cortex to move and dance. The motor cortex sends a signal down your corticospinal tract (neuron highway in your spine) via efferent nerves to the muscles required to create a set movement. On its way, it activates the hippocampus (also found in temporal lobe), which stimulates the memory of the particular movement, and its association with a part of the music. The cerebellum (ball at base of brain) also plays an important role as it controls the dancers balance. Finally the visual system (sight), the proprioception system (knowing your body and limbs position in space) and vestibular system (knowing where your head is in space), assist with movement and dance.

Now that we know what’s going on inside the body, it is easy to address questions such as how do dancers learn, and in turn, what’s the best way to teach dance?

New Findings in Dancer’s Brains

Recent studies into neuroscience and motor learning have brought about the discovery of ‘mirror’ neurons, found in the frontal lobe of the brain. Surprising findings in this area indicate that humans are, in fact, natural born imitators, and certain areas of neurons in the brain have developed, which translate visual perception of another’s actions into stimulation of these same actions in their own brain, specifically in the motor and premotor cortexes.

It is believed that when you watch someone perform an action, slight activation is occurring in your own neurons and muscles, however it is not strong enough to actually create movement. Instead this can train the brain in movement.

This link between action observation with self-motor execution, underlies a strong recognition of the visual system. We know from neurophysiology, that along the ventral visual pathway, the information flows from the primary visual cortex to the superior temporal sulcus. From here the mirror neurons are stimulated and information is sent to the motor cortex so imitation can be performed.

Research shows that the brain actually lays down memories of these movements and actions observed – as though the people themselves have performed them. New memory traces are formed which are imperative as they enhance learning.

However, there are limitations to this. The action you are watching has to be familiar to you. In a recent study with ballet and copaiera dancers, dancers were asked to sit and watch the two different styles performed as well as non-dancers.

The mirroring neurons were strongest in the dancer’s brains, because they were familiar with the moves, compared to the non-dancers.

Implications Of These Findings In Relation To Choreography and Learning Dance

1. Demonstration is Vital

This recent information can help choreographers teach dance to trained dancers, reinforcing the knowledge that demonstration is vital to assisting them learn new skills and movement. When teaching, it is imperative that the dancers are shown a demonstration of the moves they are to perform. This will help set off stimulation. When the dancer witnesses the teacher demonstrating, they start to develop the movement and hence it becomes easier to perform once required.

 2. Use of Mirrors in Studios

Full-length mirrors in dance studios can assist with learning new dance routines. It is another way of allowing the dancer to visually see the movement and create movement traces within the mind. By watching both themselves and their fellow dancers perform, they are able to analyse the movement from different angles through the use of the mirrors. It is also helpful when the dancer is practicing by themselves. They provide stimulation and help with their overall learning.

3. Injured Dancers

Teachers have long known that when a dancer is injured, they should still come to dance class and observe their dance routine and others learning. The study of Mirror Neurons proves and explains why dancers are still learning the choreography without actually having to perform or even move. Once recovered, they will find that the new movement they missed out on is not too hard to pick up or learn. Their body already seems to automatically create the movement from the memory traces they have created.

4. Memory

Prior knowledge of basic brain process and memory, combined with these new findings has allowed us to realise that memory can also be enhanced due to the stimulation of mirror neurons.

When we repeat movements in our mind, our mirror neurons are still being stimulated, creating memory traces, which assist with memory and storage of memory long term. This is important to note, considering we all know dancers are likely to be learning or performing many dances. Individual dances or Variations are also generally about five minutes long which means they involve a lot of different movement that need to be performed sequentially in a learned manner, all of which needs to be remembered.

Choreography and learning dance can be hard for some. Knowledge of basic neural systems and processes can indeed facilitate learning new things, which can help with basic teaching. Learning with more ease, through use of visual aids – demonstration; mirrors; and visual repetition – help make classes more fun and enjoyable.

[Meagan Simpson studies Exercise Science at the Australian Catholic University.

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