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What Educators and Parents Should Know About Neuroplasticity, Learning and Dance


— The Dance for Ath­letes class at Glen Burnie High School per­forms a swing piece

Dance. Is it mere­ly art?  Is it just recre­ation?  Think again.

Dance is now being stud­ied as a path­way to enhance learn­ing.  And, sci­en­tists say, edu­ca­tors and par­ents should take note of the move­ment.

Recent­ly at the annu­al meet­ing of the Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science annu­al meet­ing, more than 6,800 atten­dees paid rapt atten­tion to renowned chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Mark Mor­ris as he answered ques­tions about the rela­tion­ship between cre­ativ­i­ty and dance.

Sci­en­tists are turn­ing to dance because it is a mul­ti­fac­eted activ­i­ty that can help them—and ulti­mate­ly edu­ca­tors and even par­ents– demys­ti­fy 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 and space. Dancers deal with the rela­tion­ship between expe­ri­ence and obser­va­tion.

The brain hides from our sight the won­drous­ly com­plex oper­a­tions that under­lie this feat. Although there are many secrets to unrav­el about the pow­er of the brain and dance, advances in tech­nol­o­gy– such as brain scan­ning tech­niques and the exper­i­ments of dancers, dance mak­ers, and dance view­ers– reveal to us the unex­pect­ed.  Research shows that dance activ­i­ty reg­is­ters in regions of the brain respon­si­ble for cog­ni­tion.

More than 400 stud­ies relat­ed to inter­dis­ci­pli­nary neu­ro­science reveal the hid­den val­ue of dance.  For instance, we acquire knowl­edge and devel­op cog­ni­tive­ly because dance bulks up the brain. Con­se­quent­ly, the brain that “dances” is changed by it. As 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.”

Dance is a lan­guage of phys­i­cal exer­cise that sparks new brain cells (neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis) and their con­nec­tions. These con­nec­tions are respon­si­ble for acquir­ing knowl­edge and think­ing. Danc­ing stim­u­lates the release of the brain-derived pro­tein neu­rotrop­ic fac­tor that pro­motes the growth, main­te­nance, and plas­tic­i­ty of neu­rons nec­es­sary for learn­ing and mem­o­ry. Plus, 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 danc­ingfla­men­co, bel­ly dance, jazz, and sal­sa!)    As a method of con­vey­ing ideas and emo­tions with or with­out recourse to sound, the lan­guage of dance draws upon sim­i­lar places and thought process­es in the brain as ver­bal lan­guage. Dance feeds the brain in var­i­ous kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Through dance, stu­dents can learn about academics—and themselves–including sex­u­al, gen­der, eth­nic, region­al, nation­al, and career iden­ti­ties. More­over, dance is a means to help us improve mood and cope with stress that can moti­vate or inter­fere with con­cen­tra­tion and learn­ing. Influ­enced by body sens­es, envi­ron­ment, and cul­ture, the brain “chore­o­graphs” dance and more.

Fodder for the Brain

The brain is com­prised of about 100 bil­lion elec­tri­cal­ly active neu­rons (cells), each con­nect­ed to tens of thou­sands of its neigh­bors at per­haps 100 tril­lion synaps­es (the spaces between neu­rons where infor­ma­tion trans­fers can occur). 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, our 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.

Brain research has giv­en us many insights for dance and oth­er kinds of knowl­edge. 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 they 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.

Connection for Education

So, what is the rel­e­vance of dance for edu­ca­tors and for par­ents? First, if one of the goals of edu­ca­tion is to enhance pro­ce­dur­al learn­ing, then dance cer­tain­ly helps. In tra­di­tion­al (blocked) approach­es, 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.

Sec­ond, dance can be offered in mul­ti­ple venues to pro­mote cog­ni­tive growth, includ­ing arts mag­net schools and acad­e­mies, reg­u­lar sec­ondary schools, uni­ver­si­ties, 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. Prin­ci­pals can reach out to those offer­ing dance class­es and estab­lish invalu­able part­ner­ships.

DanceToLearnBookObvi­ous­ly cur­ric­u­la and assess­ment vary in school set­tings. 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. Or dance may also be a lib­er­al art, com­pli­men­ta­ry 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 fuel for learn­ing sub­jects oth­er than dance. In short, dance is an avenue to think­ing, trans­lat­ing, inter­pret­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, feel­ing, and creat­ing. As a mul­ti­me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tion that gen­er­ates new brain cells and their con­nec­tions, dance at any age enrich­es our cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al, and phys­i­cal devel­op­ment beyond the exer­cise itself and extends to most facets of life.


JudithLynneHannaJudith Lynne Han­na, PhD, is author of Danc­ing to Learn: The Brain’s Cog­ni­tion, Emo­tion, and Move­ment and a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia-cer­ti­fied social stud­ies and Eng­lish teacher who has taught dance.

Update: Based on the great feed­back and com­ments received below, Judith adds this:

I wel­come col­le­giate exchanges. I am very aware of the neglect of dance in pre-school, school, and else­where. See my arti­cle, “Mar­i­an Chace Foun­da­tion Annu­al Lec­ture: Octo­ber 2005. The Pow­er of Dance Dis­course: Expla­na­tion in Self-Defense,” Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Dance Ther­a­py 28(1):3–20, 2006. I will email a copy upon request.”

Relat­ed arti­cles:

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2 Responses

  1. I wel­come col­le­giate exchanges. I am very aware of the neglect of dance in pre-school, school, and else­where. See my arti­cle, “Mar­i­an Chace Foun­da­tion Annu­al Lec­ture: Octo­ber 2005. The Pow­er of Dance Dis­course: Expla­na­tion in Self-Defense,” Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Dance Ther­a­py 28(1):3–20, 2006. I will email a copy upon request.

  2. Anjan Rojanala says:

    Yes dance is also a form of men­tal health regev­na­tive. Hin­du God Shi­va
    Is supreme dancer and NATARAJA TANDAVAM is an epit­o­me of dance forms known to human­i­ty since the age of knowl­edge. This form of dance clear­ly rais­es ones self con­trol of mate­ri­al­is­tic approach and under­stand­ing of emo­tions and more.

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