Memory Builders: Brain Research Reveals How Dancers Learn New Movement

By Wozny, Nancy | Dance Magazine, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Memory Builders: Brain Research Reveals How Dancers Learn New Movement


Wozny, Nancy, Dance Magazine


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

During her riveting solo Dissipating Pathways, Erin Reck, a dancer and choreographer who splits her time between Houston and New York, delicately traces lines on her body that follow the pathways of the human nervous system. A keen interest in recent brain research informs Reck's dancing. "There's no brain/body separation," she says. "The brain is the body. Who better to understand this than dancers?"

Reck is right. Dancers learn by watching, doing, marking, and creating imagery that helps to retain movement patterns. These approaches may have developed intuitively, but recent brain studies in memory confirm they were on the right track. Consider the work of movement science pioneers Lulu Sweigard and Mabel Todd (founders of Ideokinesis), who heavily employed visualization in their methods. They intuited the mirror neuron theory, which holds that there are special groups of neurons in the brain that respond in a similar fashion whether watching or doing a movement.

Dancers are lay brain scientists of sorts, on the forefront of understanding the interplay between learning, memory, and the relationship between mind and body. New research about how we remember has yielded vital clues about optimum ways to learn movement through visualization. And neuroscientists have discovered that learning and performing new movement utilizes regions of the brain that may help to improve memory as we age.

Emily S. Cross, a dancer turned neuroscientist at the Max Hanck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, so marveled at the complexity required to learn Laura Dean's Skylight, a piece that her dance ensemble was rehearsing, that she began to devise a neuroimaging experiment to investigate the ways the brain and body interact to learn movement. She has since created a landmark study on dancers' brains. Cross takes the mirror neuron theory into the realm of dance and visual learning. She discovered that learning steps can be accelerated whenever dancers watch a movement sequence they have performed before. Observation of the same movement patterns deepens the neural grooves placed there by actually performing the steps.

Cross' work has established the neurological roots of movement visualization principles. She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map areas of the brain that are engaged when dancers observe movement. "My work supports the common intuition that a combination of observation and physical rehearsal is the best way to learn new work," says Cross. …

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