Understanding the brain on dance

Dancer Riley Watts and Dr Emily Cross are using dance to explore fundamental questions about our brains

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How does the brain perceive and interpret beautiful movement?

This is one of the key questions being asked by scientists at Bangor University who have enlisted the help of a professional dancer in their quest to better understand how our brains process movement and how we learn by observation.

Dr Emily Cross' research focuses on the relatively new field of science called neuroaesthetics which looks at how the brain perceives artistic endeavours.

Contemporary dancer Riley Watts spent a day at the university being poked and prodded by the school's researchers.

First he was filmed dancing in a variety of settings, including a 3D motion-capture studio. He then underwent a functional MRI brain scan while simultaneously watching videos of himself dancing.

Motion capture of dancer Riley Watts Dancer Riley Watts in the motion capture studio

Dr Cross hopes the pilot experiment will provide a window into what Mr Watts' brain is doing as he watches the videos of himself dancing.

"The fMRI data we've gathered will hopefully show what the professional dancer actually perceives when he sees himself moving in very complex ways; whether he is happy with that movement or not, and how his brain differentiates between the various different contexts in which we had Riley dancing."

Structural differences in brains

Given Mr Watts' lifelong focus on dance, Dr Cross also thinks the scans of his brain may reveal slight structural variations compared to average people.

This would be similar to London's black cab drivers, whose extensive geographical knowledge actually enlarges the brain's hippocampus, the area where memories are formed.

For Mr Watts, working with scientists for the first time has been a welcome change from his usual artistic endeavours with the Forsythe dance company.

"This collaboration, creating a bridge between dance and science is one of the coolest things that I've ever done," he said.

"I'm thrilled that my skills as a dancer can be put to use in a scientific context to further everyone's understanding of what is actually going on in our brains."

Over the next few months Dr Cross plans to carry out further brain scans of amateur dancers and non-dancers while they watch the video footage she recorded of Mr Watts.

Although this is just the very beginning of her efforts, Dr Cross is optimistic about the future.

"The material Riley and I develop will lead to experiments that advance our understanding of how the brain learns complex movement. In particular, our results will inform how therapists can best teach new motor skills to healthy people as well as those suffering from neurological or physical injury."

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