Dancing brains

Dancing brains

It's hard not to start tapping with your foot when the right song comes on. It seems like our brains are actually hardwired to convert music into movement. Even people with Parkinson’s disease walk better to music. Keep reading if you want to know how.

Have you ever been to a club, concert, or just at home with loud music playing? Do you know that moment when a song comes on that really resonates with you and you just can’t help but dance? Or if you’re too shy to dance, then you might just start tapping your foot or bobbing your head.

Well you’re not alone. People dance to music all around the world. Wall paintings of dancers have been found that date back 30.000 years. In this blogpost I will take you through some of the interesting things dance, or rhythmically moving your body, can teach us about the brain.

Brains can dance almost automatically

It turns out that there is a reason why people dance all around the world: Our brain has the ability to automatically translate music into movement. To understand how this might work, I will begin with a quick description of how hearing works. When listening to music your ears first transduce the physical sound waves into electrical signals. These signals then travel to the auditory cortex which is located right behind your ears, in the area of the brain called the temporal lobe. However, when people listen to rhythmical music, other brain areas become active as well. Most interestingly areas of the motor cortex become active. This means that there is a sensory-motor link in the brain, between hearing music and moving. Therefore, it is easy to start dancing when you hear that groovy beat.

Brains can copy other’s dance moves

Another neat feature of brains that can help us while dancing is called the mirror neuron system. Have you ever tried dancing with someone and then realized that you started mirroring their dance moves? Well this is probably due to your mirror neurons. Just as the name implies, these neurons help us mirror what we see. They are located in the motor cortex, but what makes them different to other motor neurons is the fact that they don’t only fire while you are moving. Mirror neurons in the motor area, responsible for moving your arm when you want to reach for something, will become active if you simply watch someone else moves their arm to reach for something. So, if you watch people dancing in a club your sensory input will automatically activate the motor areas in the brain associated with the movements you are seeing. Therefore, it is easy to join in with other dancing people, because your brain automatically transforms the dance moves you see into a motor plan for your own body.

People with Parkinson’s disease can’t walk but they can dance

There are numerous YouTube videos where you can watch people with Parkinson’s disease struggle walking. There are also some videos where the patients can suddenly walk much better while listening to music.

Like the title of the video states, this at first may seem like magic. However, scientists have been slowly starting to understand how music can help people with Parkinson’s disease walk and dance. When you think about dancing it is very obvious that you need a rhythm to dance. However, steady timing is also necessary for walking. If you would take one step…then wait 5 seconds…then take 3 quick steps…and then wait 10 seconds again, this would not look like walking. Thus, walking requires an internal rhythm. It turns out that this internal rhythm is generated within the brain structures called the basal ganglia. These structures are deep in the brain and part of them lose neurons in people with Parkinson’s disease. This means that people with Parkinson’s are worse at generating a steady rhythm. However, if the music they listen to has a nice beat, their brains can use this external rhythm to time their steps properly and help them walk or even dance again.

I hope I managed to teach you something about your brain and don’t stop dancing!