Neuroplasticity and Dance

posted in: Why we do what we do | 0
Brain by Zabou
Brain by Zabou

Dancing Makes You Smarter

Scientific research shows that our brains are malleable. This ability to change is called neuroplasticity. In fact, our brains can change in ways that are positive and negative, depending on how we use them (or neglect them).


Six Ways Dance Benefits Your Brain


First, just a quick reminder, exercise is already scientifically proven to improve memory and learning. On a related note, because music stimulates multiple parts of your brain it does a phenomenal job (just on its own) to assist in multi-modal neuroplasticity, which is called metaplasticity.

Alone, you’d think the multi-sensory benefits of movement and music would be enough, but what we do in THEGROOVE™ takes it farther on a number of levels. Here’s how…

1. New Moves: Your brain and body needs variability for optimal learning, and normal exercise tends to limit movements to the conventional ways of “getting strong.” When you’re repeating a movement or series of movements in one way only (think a bicep curl, or traditional group exercise class, like step), once you’ve mastered it, it no longer changes the brain. With THEGROOVE there is an acknowledgement that there are 5 million different ways to do a move, which allows you to keep working at your edge.

If you find yourself struggling, or working on the edge of what’s comfortable with how you’re accustomed to using your body (a hip-pump, for instance) you’re still making progress. Then, once you’ve got the hip-pump, you can start to play with it – shifting the movement from side-to-side, walking with it, or figuring out how to master it differently in your body. This brings me to my next point…

2. Play: As adults we’re often loathe to play. We take ourselves far too seriously, most often limited by a concern of what others might think of us. By introducing voluntary option to move in a way that is unique, we are doing just that – playing. It’s fun. I often refer to this as your creativity. Scientists have recently proven that play is important and critical for learning.  It’s the exploratory, open-endedness of your potential – and it can thicken grey matter (literally). Likewise, new neural connections can be made or redefined.  (On the flip-side, if neglected, neural connections can weaken and disappear.)

3. Re-drawing Sensory-Motor Maps: In order to move, our neurons relay messages via our neural circuits that control movements. The signals the brain sends for muscular movement must be re-drawn when we break out of the routine way of doing things (i.e. going from a low kick to a high kick, tapping front to tapping back, or from a shuffle to a one-two-shuffle).

4. Observing Other Dancers: If we were to sit and watch dancers, our brain would send messages to our muscles as if we were dancing (even if we never move – like a mental audition). As we GROOVE in class our brains are in active stimulation mode – fully activated by the music, sending neural messages to our muscles to respond to make the simple move, testing/playing with mobility, and, perhaps even processing visual clues from other dancers on potential ways to explore the use of our own body.

5. Cultivating Peace: When I backpacked the Appalachian Trail in 2003 I had no idea what walking meditation was, but by the end of my six-month journey I experienced it, even if I didn’t know what it was called. Meditation is scientifically proven to cultivate compassion, empathy, improve memory, and ability to handle stress. When we allow ourselves to step out of our cycles of continual thought through physical means, be it yoga, sitting meditation, walking, running, or dance, we can enter a state of meditation and actually change our brain matter.

6. Selective Sensory Stimulation: Finally, when we close our eyes it helps build awareness of the precise feelings in our bodies. It cultivates new ways of facilitating the flow of information from brain to body part. We so often take for granted the mobility that we do have, we forget to listen to the messages our body whispers. By closing our eyes, we close off the extra-sensory information to be one with the music, rhythm, and our body. Here’s a really powerful New York Times article on the brain discovering pathways of communication for a dancer with cerebral palsy.