Regulars and Shorts, Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance? Radical Enactivism

By Amy Brunvand

And other discoveries about dancing.
by Amy Brunvand

Science has a way of discovering the obvious, but that’s exactly the reason that I occasionally like to look up the latest scientific research about dancing. The artistry of dance can seem like the exact opposite of science, but precisely because dancing seems like something that Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would find illogical, studying dance can be a way to examine how the human mind works.

An article from Acta Psychologica (12/2012) lists the many ways dancing can inform the science of being human by revealing insights about motor control, timing and synchronization, sequence learning and memory, visual and motor imagery, and audience perception of motion and esthetics.

The concept that people can think-in-movement instead of being all-in-their-heads even has a scientific name: “radical enactivism.” (Maybe I’ll start putting “radical enactivist” on my business cards). A recent article in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science (9/2013) explores improvisational dance as a particular case where “thinking is not expressed by movement, but simply is movement”—where there is essentially a non-separation of thinking and doing.

If movement is considered to be a way of thinking, then the movement specialists who know the most about it are dancers.

Michelle Merritt, the author of this paper, is herself a trained dancer who has experienced the difference between having to think about movement and performing a thought. She explains that if you are trying to perform a dance according to a blueprint, there is always doubt that you might do it wrong. The magic happens when “… all the movements you have spent so many years learning to perfect just happen, while your thoughts, rather than focusing on this arm, that foot, or this posture, are about the overall story your body is telling, what your partner is doing, perhaps even how the audience is reacting.”

Of course, any dancer could have told you that’s how it is, and so could plenty of poets. It’s true that some dances (like hula, or ballet pantomime) include gestures that have a specific meaning, but in improvisational dancing there is no symbolism encoded in the gestures, and yet the dance still means something to the dancer and still communicates something to people who are watching. Scientists find that fascinating.

For instance, researchers in Japan found what every dance fan knows: that people can identify the intended emotional content of dance from the quality of motion. The study published in The Journal of Non­verbal Behavior (12/2013) found that “frequency and velocity of upward extension” is perceived as “joy” while “anger” is represented by “forceful movements but not turning or jumping.” It seems that people really do literally jump for joy and get stomping mad.

A study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (9/2013) also examined audience reaction to dance and found that “physically learning particular movements leads to greater enjoyment while observing them.” No big surprise here: It’s more fun to watch other people dance if you know a few steps yourself.

But it is a bit surprising that scientists recognize the desire people feel to embody the movement when they watch others dance and they are interested in understanding the “embodied resonance” people feel when they interact with art of any kind.

As long as we are talking about dance and cognition, you might want to know the best strategy to learn a dance routine in order to gain the confidence to let your dance “just happen.” A study in Psychological Science (9/2013) suggests “marking” (which is to say, substituting gestures and reduced movements for the dance you actually plan to do). That’s the way professional dancers practice, but the researchers point out, “Although dancers, teachers, and choreographers intuitively know that marking during some portions of the rehear­sal pro­cess is beneficial, the accepted explanation is that it saves energy. Our results suggest that dancers have in fact evolved a strategy that benefits them cognitively by relieving cognitive load and supporting more efficient encoding and consolidation.”

It can seem funny that scientists have to work so hard to understand what people mean by dancing, but then again, Bill Nye the Science Guy was pretty awful on Dancing with the Stars. Maybe he just needed to do a little more research on radical enactivism and thinking-in-movement.

This article was originally published on November 28, 2013.