Your Body: Memory Builders

June 28, 2010

During her riveting solo Dissipating Pathways, Erin Reck, a dancer and choreographer who splits her time between Houston and New York, delicately traces lines on her body that follow the pathways of the human nervous system. A keen interest in recent brain research informs Reck’s dancing. “There’s no brain/body separation,” she says. “The brain is the body. Who better to understand this than dancers?”


Reck is right. Dancers learn by watching, doing, marking, and creating imagery that helps to retain movement patterns. These approaches may have developed intuitively, but recent brain studies in memory confirm they were on the right track. Consider the work of movement science pioneers Lulu Sweigard and Mabel Todd (founders of Ideokinesis), who heavily employed visualization in their methods. They intuited the mirror neuron theory, which holds that there are special groups of neurons in the brain that respond in a similar fashion whether watching or doing a movement.


Dancers are lay brain scientists of sorts, on the forefront of understanding the interplay between learning, memory, and the relationship between mind and body. New research about how we remember has yielded vital clues about optimum ways to learn movement through visualization. And neuroscientists have discovered that learning and performing new movement utilizes regions of the brain that may help to improve memory as we age.


Emily S. Cross, a dancer turned neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, so marveled at the complexity required to learn Laura Dean’s Skylight, a piece that her dance ensemble was rehearsing, that she began to devise a neuroimaging experiment to investigate the ways the brain and body interact to learn movement. She has since created a landmark study on dancers’ brains. Cross takes the mirror neuron theory into the realm of dance and visual learning. She discovered that learning steps can be accelerated whenever dancers watch a movement sequence they have performed before. Observation of the same movement patterns deepens the neural grooves placed there by actually performing the steps.


Cross’ work has established the neurological roots of movement visualization principles. She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map areas of the brain that are engaged when dancers observe movement. “My work supports the common intuition that a combination of observation and physical rehearsal is the best way to learn new work,” says Cross. “Performing along with an expert demonstrator standing in front of the learner, facing away from the learner so that the right arm is mapped on to the right arm and so on, is ideal.”


Reck, who has studied Cross’ work,  asks her dancers to watch others perform movement as a rehearsal strategy. She also conducts a “neural rehearsal,” which requires precise movement and visualization with each step. Her dancers must see the movement in their minds as they do it. “Neural rehearsals are great for getting a sequence into place,” notes Cross, “while full energy rehearsals are required to build the patterning that will be required to perform the piece.”


Reck became acquainted with Cross’ research while completing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York, where she studied with choreographer Sara Rudner. The challenging coordination puzzles that Rudner gave inspired Reck to try to bring the relationship between the brain and creative movement into her own work. A Rudner exercise could include a brain teaser tri-furcation, like using a 14-count leg phrase with 9 changes of direction, 21 arm gestures in 21 counts, then cycling until both are back at the first count. “It’s amazing what comes out when you trick your neural connections out of their comfort zone,” says Reck. “Working this way engages the whole self.”


Challenging the body and brain with new movement may well have unforeseen benefits. The neuroscience buzz word of the day is brain plasticity, which means the ability to go on learning well into life. Crossword puzzles are a great way to exercise the brain, but they don’t hold a candle to stretching body and brain with new choreography. When you learn and move simultaneously, you engage more regions of the brain. “Although there is no definite research yet,” says Cross, “my hunch is that dancers have a distinct advantage for slowing the process of aging in the brain and body.”


Reck and others may find themselves ahead in terms of retaining agility and mental acuity. “Dancing is like a double whammy,” says Cross. “It engages cognitive and physical processes, which is why dance is a great way to study the brain. It allows us to glimpse how the brain can multitask so effectively.”


Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.