In April, we hosted our first Creativity and Neuroscience online workshop on “Movement and Mind”. (Also, it was our one year workshop-anniversary!) For this workshop we invited performance artist, dancer, dance movement therapist, movement director, and body researcher Sophie Mars. The workshop included a mix of lecture, poetry, physical examples, as well as, references to scientific (neuroscience) studies and literature on dance therapy and movement. Sophie kindly put together an overview of the concepts and studies she touched upon in our workshop and further thoughts, theories and literature for our blog:
Keywords: attunement, kinesthetic empathy, extended body, mirroring, dance movement therapy, embodied cognition, embodied virtuality, collective movement
I am a dance movement therapist, dance artist and body researcher. I have always been interested in the body and in the relationship between the body and the virtual space. I believe in the potential of combining the benefits of virtuality with the body, but acknowledge that it requires an observant renegotiating as well as conscious and careful understanding of both. Especially during COVID—19, I am interested in examining how this situation is affecting the body. I believe that movement and moving together can be one of the keys to keeping the virtual experience just as ‘alive’ and allowing us to experience equal amounts of connection, and I see this situation as an opportunity enabling us to connect and move with far more people than usual, with the potential of extending our experience of empathy and connection.
Dance Therapy History
The official definition of dance therapy according to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) “is the psychotherapeutic use of movement for promoting the emotional, physical, social, integration of the individual for the purpose of promoting health and well-being”. The European Association includes “spiritual” in this list.
The idea of dance as healing art goes way back, probably as old as we are. We have always used dance to heal in ancient traditions, and many cultures and tribes still do so today. This blog provides a brief timeline of the official history of dance movement therapy. Not included in this list is the influence that modern dance (and dancers such as Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan and their shift to more expressive, improvised movements showing their inner emotional state) had on dance movement therapy.
There is more qualitative than quantitative research in dance therapy, though in recent years and evidence-based quantitative research has been getting stronger. For example, this recent meta-analysis describes the effects of dance movement therapy. The study concluded that they “found empirical evidence that DMT (dance movement therapy) […] improved affect-related psychological conditions by decreasing anxiety and depression levels, and increased quality of life and cognitive skills”, in addition to asserting long-term effects.
Other benefits of dance therapy include stress reduction, disease prevention, mood management, emotional regulation, self-discovery and understanding, understanding of behavioral patterns, strengthening resources and self-expression and interpersonal skills, an increase in levels of serotonin, and the development of new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory and spatial recognition and many more.
Principles of DMT: Attunement and Mirroring
One fundamental principles of dance therapy includes “Attunement” which was further defined by Judith Kestenberg. For a simplified summary of attunement see this article. For some of the original work on attunement in dance therapy see this article. The second principle of dance therapy includes “Mirroring”, on which more detailed information can be found here.
Mirroring is also a concept that is subject in cognitive neuroscience and empathy research. The simulation of action through mirror neurons allows us to understand the actions of others and have empathic engagements. Some research also reported that the mirror neurons play a role in the appreciation of art as well as express differences between dancers’ and non-dancers’ perception of dance. As an example, in a study by Calvo-Merino and colleagues (2005), professional ballet and Capoeira dancers (and some non-dancing control individuals) were put into an fMRI brain scanner. Then, the researchers showed all participant groups videos of both ballet and Capoeira dance movements. What did they find? The researchers found differences in brain activation when the dancers watched movements from their own style of dance compared to when they watched similar movements from the other dance style. When the dancers watched movement from their own areas of expertise, for example, ballet dancers watching ballet videos, the areas of their brains associated with planning and making movements were substantially more active. In addition to that, experts showed more sensorimotor brain activity than non-experts. This finding suggests, that expert dancers see dance differently from non-experts. What can this conclude? First, watching dance activated the same brain areas as when performing dance movements. Secondly, dancers perceived the dance movements by activating the movement planning and control portions of their brains. One could say that although their feet were still, their brains were dancing. This simulation of movement through the “mirror system” integrates observed actions of others with the personal motor repertoire.
Contemporary Embodiment and Philosophy Theories Relating to Virtual Space
Thomas Fuchs is a professor of philosophy and psychiatry. His research areas lie at the intersection of phenomenology, psychopathology and cognitive neuroscience, with a main emphasis on embodiment, enactivism, temporality, and intersubjectivity. His research shows “evidence in cross-temporal studies for a significant decline in empathic abilities since the beginning of this century.” Also, “one of the possible contributing factors could well be the rise of virtual relations and fictional empathy which occurs at the price of a diminishment of embodied communicative skills and primary empathic abilities.” (Fuchs, 2014). I therefore suggest a more embodied and conscious use of ‘virtual reality’ such as we experimented with in the workshop in which we moved together in different exercises and different ways.
Thomas Fuchs also coined the term “extended body”, meaning that “in mutual incorporation and resonance, both agents form an extended body. “This process has been described at the systems level as the interaction gaining autonomy of its own, or participatory sense-making” (Fuchs, 2017). This extended body can even develop its own history – the idea that you create a movement language that exists beyond both identities when moving with another, even in body language. My question is – what is the online extended body? How are we creating a new way of being together?
According to theories of situation cognition referenced in a paper written by Musetti and Coriano in 2018, “cognition is embodied, embedded, extended and distributed or collective.” “These theories reconceptualise cognition, instead of the classical, individualistic, intra-brain conception of cognition, these theories take into account the relationships among the brain, the body and the environment, to determine the functional products of the mind. Thanks to the internet’s development (in terms of apps, devices, social platforms) it can be seen as the principal structure of this embodied[…]” Musetti and Coriano also mention the fact that a large amount of geographically separated individuals can think of an issue at the same time. This shows that collective efforts and collective decision making online are examples of new cognition.
I think that the internet opens up another dimension for dance therapy. Since digital dance therapy can reach far more people, I believe that using the internet and technology in a conscious and embodied way can enable us as a global society to become a more interconnected empathetic network.
I currently offer individual and group online sessions. Message me for more information, to join or to try a taster session.
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References and further reading:
Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D. E., Grèzes, J., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2005). Action observation and acquired motor skills: An fMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral Cortex, 15(8), 1243–1249.
Cowart, M., Embodied cognition, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/embodcog/
Freedberg, D., & Gallese, V. (2007). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(5), 197–203.
Fuchs, T.. (2014). The virtual other. Empathy in the age of virtuality. Journal of Consciousness Studies 21(5–6), 152–173.
Fuchs, T. (2017). Collective body memories, in Durt, C., Fuchs, T. & Tewes, C. (eds.) Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture, pp. 333–352, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kestenberg, J. S., & Buelte, A. (1977). Prevention, infant therapy and the treatment of adults: mutual holding and holding-oneself-up. Int J Psychoanal Psychother; 6, 369–96,
Koch, S. C., Riege, R. F. F., Tisborn, K., Biondo, J., Martin, L., & Beelmann, A. (2019). Effects of dance movement therapy and dance on health-related psychological outcomes. A meta-analysis update. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
Lacson, F. C. (2019). Embodied attunement: a dance/movement therapy approach to working with couples. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 1–16. doi:10.1080/17432979.2019.1699859
McGarry, L. M., & Russo, F. A. (2011). Mirroring in Dance/Movement Therapy: Potential mechanisms behind empathy enhancement. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(3), 178–184. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2011.04.005
Musetti, A., & Corsano, P. (2018). The Internet Is Not a Tool: Reappraising the Model for Internet-Addiction Disorder Based on the Constraints and Opportunities of the Digital Environment. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 558. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00558
Rajmohan, V. & Mohandas, E. (2007). Mirror neuron System, Indian J Psychiatry 49(1): 66–69., doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.31522
Smart, P. (2017) Extended Cognition and the Internet. Philos. Technol. 30, 357–390 (2017). doi: 10.1007/s13347-016-0250-2