We Were Made To Dance
Music and dance have a powerful effect on the brain, according to many studies. Our brains have a built in function that essentially turns on automatically when the first few notes of a song start to play. As the beat of a song continues, our brains pick up on that rhythm, as well as the melody of the tune…and before long, we often start to tap our feet to the rhythm or gently nod our heads to the music. It’s a natural, automated response – we’ve all had this experience.
Dancing Improves Brain Function
It makes since that there’s such a strong connection between our brains and music and movement. Consider the complex series of actions and movements that make up dancing. There are tiny motor movements and larger spatial movements (i.e. gliding gracefully across the room, jumping, turning, etc.) that must both be considered by the brain. No matter how you add it up, the physical movements and motions of dancing require some pretty substantial processing power from the brain. Through uniquely blending aerobic exercise with social interaction, dance stimulates the mind.
You may have heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report on how physical activity keeps our mind sharper as we age. In summary:
The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, monitored the rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The study evaluated the effects of physical and cognitive recreational activities on improved mental acuity. Cognitive activities included reading books, writing for pleasure, crossword puzzles, playing cards and musical instruments. Physical activities included playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and housework. Some activities had a significant beneficial effect. Other activities had none.
One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind. There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing. One interpretation of the report stated that frequent dancing provided a 76 percent risk reduction (for dementia) and another stated a 63 percent risk reduction. Based upon these findings and other similar reports, researchers concluded that dancing regularly can offer protection against dementia.
According to Joe Verghese, a neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine that led the study, dancing can provide a triple benefit for the brain. Dance music engages the mind, the exercise aspect of dancing increases blood flow to the brain, and the social component decreases stress, depression and loneliness. As you memorize dance steps you work out mental challenges that are essential for brain-health at any age.
Dr. Joseph Coyle, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, wrote in an accompanying commentary, “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these [dance] activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.”
What’s the best way to improve our mind as well as our body? Common sense tells us that it is practice and exercise. So if we know that dancing to music causes a flurry of brain activity, it becomes quite clear that exercising through dance with music is a fantastic way to stimulate the brain and improve brain function at the same time.
One might ask, why specifically is dancing an excellent activity for improving mental capabilities? One answer our intelligence is stimulated by making decisions. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, suggested that intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do. When it comes to improving our mental acuity, involving ourselves in activities that require split-second rapid-fire decision-making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths) integrates several brain functions at once, increasing connectivity. Dancing simultaneously involves kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional processes.
Just Do It!
The New England Journal of Medicine report also concluded, as other studies have, that dancing may improve memory function. Let’s assume it does. If dance and music improves brain and memory function, we can use it at any age! We all benefit from the immense gifts that are provided from movement and more specifically, from movement combined with music. Our brains thrive on music, rhythm, melody, and dance. Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages and now we have a plethora of research on the further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin levels and the sense of well-being that provides. So…. get those dancing shoes on folks… DANCE AND DANCE OFTEN!!