Thinking on your feet: The effects of dance on the brain

It’s nearing the end of September: a month for colourful autumn leaves, freshly sharpened pencils and pumpkin spiced lattes.  For many dance music fans, it’s also time to head to the island of Ibiza for the legendary closing parties at some of the world’s greatest clubs. Typically, nights on the ‘white isle’ see clubbers dancing well into the night and early hours of the morning.

Let’s go dancing: DJs Disciples get the crowd moving at this year’s Cream Ibiza closing party. Credit: James Chapman Photography.

But how does dancing affect us? As anyone who has ever gone to a club night, ceilidh or even a Zumba class can testify, dancing can be excellent physical exercise, raising our heart rates and burning hundreds of calories. However, there is now growing evidence that dancing can also change the way you think.

Just ask professional dancer turned academic psychologist, Dr Peter Lovatt. Dr Lovatt runs the Dance Psychology Lab and researches the links between dance, problem solving and creativity (watch his TEDx talk). According to Dr Lovatt, the benefits of dancing are obvious: “dancing made me feel relaxed and stress free, it helped me to think more clearly, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.” But where’s the empirical evidence for this claim? One emerging area of research studies how different types of dancing can improve different types of problem solving. In a recent study, researchers tested the relationship between dancing and ‘divergent’ thinking; that is, creative thinking tasks with multiple solutions, such as brainstorming. In the experiment, primary school children were randomly allocated to participate in 10 minutes of either ‘improvised’ dance (the experimental group) or ‘command-style’ dance, where they learned a simple routine (the control group). The children then performed a creative toy design task. The results revealed that children assigned to the improvised dance group performed significantly better than the control group. In other words, improvised dancing seemed to boost the children’s creative thinking ability.

There is also growing interest in how dancing can help maintain healthy brain function in older age. Whilst the link between exercise and healthy cognitive function remains uncertain, it remains a key area of interest for researchers. However, fitness may not be the only mechanism involved. Indeed, dancing involves a combination of elements which may be beneficial, including social interaction, musical stimulation and cognitive reasoning (i.e. literally thinking on your feet). In one study, 35 older people who took part in a dancing programme, for over six months, showed a range of cognitive improvements, including improved working memory and reaction times. Yet within the group cardio-respiratory performance did not change. Furthermore, in an American cohort study that tracked over 400 older adults over several years, dancing was the only physical activity linked with lower risk of dementia. This suggests it might not necessarily be just the work-out factor involved in dancing that helps to protect cognitive and perceptual abilities.

Researchers have also explored the therapeutic effects of dance for treating clinical conditions. The findings of several small-scale studies indicate that dancing may be beneficial for people with certain neurodegenerative disorders, like dementia.  For example, residents of a dementia nursing home who took part in weekly dance sessions as part of a research study gained small improvements in certain visual functions and planning ability. Dancing may also help people with mental illness. In one study involving patients admitted to a psychiatric ward, just 30 minutes of dancing to lively music was sufficient to reduce their symptoms of depression and improve vitality.  The interesting thing about this study is that researchers also recruited a second group of patients to simply listen to the same music, without dancing. The results showed that only the patients who danced derived any benefit: in other words, for these patients music alone wasn’t enough.

Of course, the evidence in this area is still emerging and better quality studies are needed to fully understand how dance affects the brain.  The research that has been done still leaves lots of unanswered questions, like what are the effects of different types of dancing and does it matter what type of music you listen to? In the meantime, however, the next time you head off to Ibiza, Zumba or even just dance around the kitchen, just consider the possibility that you might be doing yourself more good than you think.

See you at the front.

Post by: Lamiece Hassan

Aromatherapy: what is it and does it actually work?

ET_essential_oil_candleWe all know that smells can affect the way we feel. Indeed, essential oils are used regularly in Ancient Egypt and India as an adjunct to improve health and well-being. These oils are usually extracted by steam distillation from fragrant plants such as lavender, rose, orange, cinnamon or peppermint, to name just a few. The oils can be inhaled, used during massage, or even ingested.

It is theorised that the effect scent has on mood may be mediated by the architecture of the olfactory system. The areas of the brain that process scents are directly connected with areas involved in processing emotions, memories and autonomic responses.

Let’s start from the beginning, i.e. the nose. Here the receptors on olfactory neurons detect odorants (chemicals which form a scent) and transform these  particles into electrical signals. These signals travel along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb in the central nervous system (Kadohisa, 2013). The olfactory bulb forms connections with other brain areas such as amygdala (the center of emotions) (Wilson-Mendenhall et al., 2013) and the entorhinal cortex (important in memory) (Takehara-Nishiuchi, 2014). The amygdala, in turn, is connected to the hypothalamus, a part of brain that regulates physiological states, e.g. controlling the release of stress hormones. This is one reason why smells can have an impact on our mood and why they evoke such strong memories. Can you think of any smell which conjures up a memory for you? – If so, let us know in the comments below!

The_Soul_of_the_Rose_-_WaterhouseA number of people find that essential oils can affect their mood but these are not the only odorants can which have this effect. If you like spending time in nature you probably noticed that being surrounded with vegetation can reduce stress. One study suggests that the “green odour” (the scent of leaves and vegetation) changes the electrical signals in our brain in a way that brings about a sedative-like action, reflected in a feeling of relaxation (Sano et al., 2002). Studies on rats have shown that this effect could be due to the action of the green odour on the brain circuit which release adrenaline and cortisol (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) (Nakashima et al., 2004).

Another botanical scent, the essential oil of rose, may have a similar effect on the brain’s stress circuitry (Fukada et al., 2012). Women who carried a test paper soaked in rose essential oil for several days during exam period showed no change in their cortisol levels, while those students supplied with a jasmine aroma patch or nothing at all, had increased amount of cortisol around their exams. One suggestion raised by this study is that rose essential oil could prevent the release of stress hormones. Further, in another study essential oil extracted from orange peels reduced the activity in the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain involved in integrating information, planning and making decisions (Igarashi et al., 2014). After barely ninety seconds of inhaling these oils participants felt more “comfortable”, “relaxed” and “natural”.

Have you ever noticed that in times of stress your skin becomes dry or you are plagued by eczema? Stress causes shrinking of the lipids that form the protective skin barrier, increasing transepidermal water loss (TEWL) – the escape of moisture from the skin. Some studies suggest that inhaling the “green odour” or rose essential oil can reduce this water leakage and prevent the stress-related drying of the skin (Fukada et al., 2007).

Aromatherapy is based on a holistic approach to the patient, considering both their physical and psychological needs (meaning that any effects of aromatherapy may be person-specific). Scientific studies have shown evidence both for and against the effectiveness of aromatherapy but with many individuals reporting benefits further research is certainly required.

This article is for informational purposes only. Always use essential oils as instructed by the manufacturer or a therapist.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

Fukada, M., E. Kano, M. Miyoshi, R. Komaki, and T. Watanabe, 2012, Effect of “rose essential oil” inhalation on stress-induced skin-barrier disruption in rats and humans: Chem Senses, v. 37, p. 347-56.

Kadohisa, M., 2013, Effects of odor on emotion, with implications: Front Syst Neurosci, v. 7, p. 66.

Nakashima, T., M. Akamatsu, A. Hatanaka, and T. Kiyohara, 2004, Attenuation of stress-induced elevations in plasma ACTH level and body temperature in rats by green odor: Physiology & Behavior, v. 80, p. 481-488.

Sano, K., Y. Tsuda, H. Sugano, S. Aou, and A. Hatanaka, 2002, Concentration effects of green odor on event-related potential (P300) and pleasantness: Chemical Senses, v. 27, p. 225-230.

Takehara-Nishiuchi, K., 2014, Entorhinal cortex and consolidated memory: Neurosci Res, v. 84, p. 27-33.

Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., L. F. Barrett, and L. W. Barsalou, 2013, Neural Evidence That Human Emotions Share Core Affective Properties: Psychological Science, v. 24, p. 947-956.

Science and Religion – Awkward Bedfellows Through The Ages

Science and religion haven’t always seen eye-to-eye over the centuries. The ways in which they impact upon one another have changed hugely, with each civilisation and religion having its own views and rules. Here, I’ll take a look at 3 major moments in history that showcase this ever-changing, and often tumultuous, relationship.

The Ancient Egyptians (~3150 BC to ~30 BC)

The Egyptians didn’t have what we would call ‘scientific understanding’. Rather than deducing earthly and natural meanings for the phenomena they observed, they attributed everything to their Gods. Yet they learned an incredible amount about the world in their bid to understand their Gods’ wishes and to use natural phenomena in the pursuit of worship.

One notable example of this was the way in which they used the stars, mapping the paths of certain celestial bodies across the sky with such accuracy that they were eventually able to predict their movements throughout the year. Much of our knowledge of the night sky has stemmed from Egyptian observations, and so their importance cannot be overstated.

Karnak Temple. Photo credit: Vyacheslav Argenberg via Flickr. Shared under Creative Commons License 2.0
Karnak Temple. Photo credit: Vyacheslav Argenberg via Flickr. Shared under Creative Commons License 2.0

A fantastic application of their knowledge can be seen in the Karnak Temple in Luxor, built for the Sun God, Amun Re. The Egyptian astronomers, or ‘cosmologists’, realised that the sun rises at different points along the horizon, depending on the time of year. So, when building the temple, the architects positioned the building so that, on the Winter Solstice, the sun rises directly between the 2 front pillars, filling the temple with light. By all accounts it is a phenomenal sight and one that I’d love to see some day.

However, whilst the Egyptian architects and thinkers were considered great minds, they were always considered inferior to the Gods they sought to worship. Religion dominated the culture, leaving little perceived need for Science.

The Ancient Greeks (~800 BC to ~150 BC)

Arguably, it wasn’t until the Ancient Greeks developed the first recognisable scientific methodology that things began to change. Amongst the Greeks were some of the greatest minds ever known, including Pythagoras, Archimedes and Aristotle. They began to study the reasons behind phenomena, not content to just accept them as the will of the Gods, gaining reputations for being geniuses in the process, even in their own time.

Hippocrates. Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens - Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Hippocrates. Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens – Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Greeks’ religion overlapped somewhat with that of the Ancient Egyptians. Their often-similar Gods were also thought to influence most aspects of life. As such, there were some things that people just weren’t ready for science to explain. For example, Hippocrates – author of the Hippocratic Oath upon which Western medicine is founded – realised that disease wasn’t a divine punishment. It was, in fact, borne of earthly causes.

Obviously, such revelations didn’t always go down well. Hippocrates, whilst advancing his society’s understanding of the world, had just diminished the role of the Gods in that world. Eventually, however, these ideas took hold and arguably improved Science’s standing in society. Religion remained an integral part of society, but Science had now proven its worth and its role in society would only increase during the transition to enlightenment.

The 19th Century

By the 19th century, in Western cultures contradicting religious teachings was still proving massively controversial. In Christianity, for example, it was an accepted fact that God created the Earth, the Moon and the Stars, as well as all of Life.

Charles Darwin. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. Shared under Creative Commons License 3.0
Charles Darwin. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. Shared under Creative Commons License 3.0

Despite rumblings amongst some scientists that this wasn’t the case, scientific establishments had a close relationship with the Church of England, so such contradictory thinking never really took hold. A certain Mr Darwin, however, was so convinced of the importance of his work, ‘On the Origin of Species’, that he had it published on 24th November 1859, courting massive controversy. The Church, naturally, rejected the theory, whilst the scientific community was split.

The general public were caught in the middle of a fascinating stage in the relationship between Science and Religion. Should they trust the Church, which held such sway in their lives, or should they trust the ever-growing number of scientists, trusted and revered minds, who dared to disagree with the Church? For their part, scientists were now forced to dig deeper and drive scientific understanding even further in an effort to answer the questions to which the public demanded answers.

The product of all this is the world in which we live now, where Science is driving forward understanding at an ever-increasing pace. Religion remains important in many people’s lives but I would argue that, for many, Science has an even greater importance in their lives as it seeks to offer tangible evidence-based answers to the questions we have about the universe. The question now is how the relationship between Religion and Science will change in the future. It is a dynamic relationship, no doubt, with time and location playing massive roles in its development. Only time will tell how they will get along a century from now…

This post, by author Ian Wilson, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

Sartorial Science

Are you sick of the lazy stereotypes that surround scientists? That we are all old, white men in lab coats, with fuzzy hair and safety goggles, and that the only thing that we find fashionable are tank tops and boiler suits? Well I was, and so that is why my colleague Sophie Powell and I have created a new blog, to challenge these conventions.

Scientists come in all shapes and sizes…
Scientists come in all shapes and sizes…

I have always been extremely interested in fashion, and at one point I believe that I had the largest collection of bowties in the North West. As well as being a PhD student at the University of Manchester, Sophie is also a keen fashion blogger, posting regularly on her website, The Scientific Beauty. We were both sick of seeing articles such as this one from the Guardian portraying scientists as socially inept and modishly incompetent troglodytes, and so we decided to create Sartorial Science.

The idea behind this blog is that any scientist, from undergraduate to professor can send us a photo of them in their resplendent best, and then answer some basic questions about their research and their fashion influences. It is supposed to be a bit of fun, but like similarly minded projects ‘This is What a Scientist Looks Like’ and ‘STARtorialist’, it aims to showcase to the wider public that scientists are real people, and that many of them have a variety of interests outside of science, including fashion and looking fabulous!

Many might think that sites such as this are a waste of time, and that scientists should only

...and they can even wear science!
…and they can even wear science!

concern themselves with doing their research, publishing results, and applying for grants. However, it is extremely important to humanise the people behind the science, not least because it will help to inspire a future of generation of scientists. If younger students think that being a scientist is all about working in a laboratory and conforming to stereotypes, then many of them might not decide to pursue science any further than compulsory education.

As well as showcasing the sartorial merits of our contributors, we also hope to gather enough data to be able to start investigating the relationship between scientists and fashion, in a more detailed study that would be suitable for publication. But in order for that to happen we need lots more posts, so come on scientists show us your style!

Post by: Sam Illingworth