the science of dancing
Chris harrigan explores the mathematical side of cutting a rug.
In 1978, a young, as-yet-unproblematic Michael Jackson implored the world not to blame his dancing on the sunshine, the moonlight, or the good times, but rather, on the boogie. While supporting his general thesis, evolutionary biologists may have mounted a more nuanced defence: Jackson danced because he was a member of the species Homo sapiens. And Homo sapiens evolved over tens of thousands of years to do precisely that: dance.
We don’t know exactly when our ancient ancestors first started rhythmically convulsing to music, but it probably wasn’t long after they climbed down from the trees. Archaeologists have found evidence of our species’ need to bump and grind in the earliest art on cave walls from Europe to Africa and the Americas, suggesting we’ve been dancing for about as long as we’ve been doing much of anything. But why?
A popular, albeit predictable, theory argues it’s survival of the sexiest: dancing is a good way to show that hottie over by the mammoth carcass how fit and coordinated you are. (Fitness and coordination being two pretty useful – and therefore sexy – qualities in mammoth-eating societies.) But others argue there’s more to it than that. A lot more.
According to some social theorists, dance is the adhesive that glues society together. It may even be the thing that allows civilisation itself to prosper. That’s a big claim, but there’s some sound thinking behind it. Individually, humans are pretty feeble creatures. But put us in large groups and we can accomplish a lot. (Perhaps too much, if our ever-warming planet is any indication.) The only hurdle we face in forming large groups is that we don’t tend to trust people outside our extended kinship circles, which max out at around 150 individuals. This makes co-operation on big projects like agricultural economics or Moon landings difficult.
So, how do we achieve that all-important social cohesion? 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued it had to do with something he called “collective effervescence”: that feeling of euphoria and ‘oneness’ you get when you participate in an exciting activity with a large bunch of people. And what produces collective effervescence quite like a conga line around a bonfire, or a quick twerk at a year 12 formal?
Not much, it turns out. According to Dr Bronwyn Tarr, an evolutionary biologist and dancer at the University of Oxford, human beings are hardwired to enjoy the kinds of synchronised movements associated with dancing. It’s due to a small but vital region in our brains that lets us mirror other people’s movements, even if we’ve never performed those actions before. For some reason, that neural pathway goes into overdrive when we watch a group of people move in sync. And when we perform those same actions along with the group, our brains release a cocktail of feel-good chemicals. Add music, which activates our brains’ opioid receptors, and you’ve got yourself what scientists call “a good ol’ time”.
And so, we dance. Or at least, some of us do. Those born with ‘two left feet’ may wonder what they’re missing out on. The answer, according to a study published in the Public Library of Science’s biology journal, may be a couple of genes. In 2005, a team of scientists compared the DNA of a group of professional dancers to that of some wallflowers. They found the dancers were more likely to share genes that control the release of vasopressin and serotonin – two chemicals known to make people better social communicators. Can’t dance? Blame your parents. (And their parents, and so on.)
You mightn’t be able to do much about your genes, but at least science can help you throw better shapes. In a recent study, psychologists at Northumbria University used motion-capture
technology to record the moves of 39 dancing women and turn them into featureless, grooving avatars. They then asked heterosexual men to rate those avatars on a seven-point scale. The finding – that women looking to impress men would do well to swing their hips in time to a beat – isn’t exactly rocket science. But things get more interesting (if ungainly) when the sexes are swapped: heterosexual women apparently prefer men who make large movements with their necks, torsos, left wrists and right knees. (Moving the left knee either didn’t matter or had a small negative correlation.) Which certainly makes for an interesting mental image.
Dance lessons can be good for those looking to improve their hustles, but maybe temper your expectations about reinventing yourself on the D-floor. That’s the advice of researchers at Finland’s Centre of Interdisciplinary Music Research, who used machine-learning software to analyse the moves of 73 people as they danced to different music styles. The original idea was to see if the computer could detect the genre of music being played based on dance moves alone. It couldn’t, but it managed to do something much more impressive: correctly identify which participant was dancing, no matter the style of music they were listening to. This means our bodily movements, like our fingerprints, are unique and identifiable (at least, to a computer).
We probably don’t have to worry about dance-recognition surveillance being installed in nightclubs just yet (the researchers in Finland say they’re not interested in the technology’s practical applications, and it’s hard to imagine who else would be). But that computer program is still capable of some pretty spooky insights: dance for it and it will tell you all sorts of intimate details about yourself, such as what mood you’re in, how neurotic you are (rude), and even how well you can empathise with others. All that, just from cutting a rug.
If this is starting to sound a bit Black Mirror, rest assured there are still plenty of reasons to go out dancing. Good brain health is one. Numerous studies show that busting a move as little as once a week can stimulate new neural connections and increase connectivity between the two cerebral hemispheres. The result: improved brain function, increased memory, and (according to at least one paper) a 76 per cent reduction in the risk of developing dementia.
Even more impressive is what dancing can do for people suffering from neurodegenerative conditions. Many folks with Parkinson’s disease find themselves unable to walk. And yet, play the right music and some of those same people will dance themselves out of their wheelchairs and into the streets. The science is a little hazy on why, though doctors think it’s to do with the fact that dancing and walking use slightly different brain networks.
But wait, that’s not all: boffins at the University of Hertfordshire’s Dance Psychology Lab believe that dancing can make you smarter, really quickly. And you can even tailor what kind of smart you want to be. Fifteen minutes of improvised dancing is apparently enough to make you a better ‘divergent thinker’, which means you’ll be good at solving creative problems that have many possible solutions. But do 15 minutes of structured dancing, like ballet or ballroom, and you’ll be better at ‘convergent thinking’ – solving a problem with just one correct answer, such as a maths equation or a spelling test.
So, next time you need to study for an exam, maybe drop the textbooks and hit the dance floor, instead. It might just make you smarter. And if it doesn’t? Blame it on the boogie.