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.

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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

124 thoughts on “Thinking on your feet: The effects of dance on the brain”

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