The dance between scientists and dancers

By Marieke van Vugt

Notes on Synchrony was my first exploration into the question of how dance could inform science, and science could inform dance. The project was born from a grant awarded by the US Air Force for investigating the role of inter-brain synchronization in social connection and trust. Emerging research has suggested that when people coordinate, and when they are relating with empathy, that the activity in their brains synchronizes. However, different studies point at different kinds of brain waves synchronizing, and it is not exactly clear whether these different kinds of brain waves may be connected to different kinds of social processes. This grant sought to elucidate that question by manipulating human connection in a very rich way—with the help of dancers. The idea of using dancers originated at least in part from the fact that I am also an amateur ballet dancer myself. Moreover, it seemed like a logical next step from a previous study I did with Tibetan monks, where we found that deeply engaging in a debate practice that also had a strong movement component was associated with increases in inter-brain synchronization (in that case in frontal alpha waves). Because in that study we could not disentangle the physical and mental components, I figured a logical next step would be to work with dancers who did have experience with carefully manipulating both their bodies and minds, and investigate their human connection through what they called “movement research”.


In theory, the study was very simple: we would ask the dancers to evoke states of high physical connection and high mental connection, high physical connection accompanied by low mental connection, and all other combinations of those variables. Then, from a scientific perspective, you would just repeat this same process many times, and record brain activity at the same time so you can later investigate whether there is a difference between those experimental conditions. However, it was not that simple, because the approach of the dancers is to do exactly the opposite of that: when researching a concept, they explore it in a completely different way each time! This turned out to be very interesting, because we came up with some experimental conditions that were very interesting, such as a dialogue, in which one person moves in response to the other person, but not directly copying them. In a follow-up laboratory experiment, we found that subjectively-speaking, the dialogue condition, as well as a condition in which the dancers imagined they were moving as a single body, resulted in the strongest feelings of connection.


Neurally-speaking, the results are a bit less clear. Preliminary results demonstrate that facing the other person results in increases in the synchronization between the two brains in theta waves in the central parts of the brain. We do not know exactly what these theta waves do, but they may be involved in constructing a shared representation of the situation. Moving as a single body appears to increase theta waves in electrodes that are more in the back of the brain, where visual areas tend to be located. Nevertheless, all these results have a very small magnitude. I am currently working with students on exploring how the results depend on the exact analysis methods employed. To be continued!


In summary, I think working with dancers was a very enriching experience. It taught me that scientists have a very strong focus on repeatability—a very convergent way of thinking—whereas dancers have a stronger focus on exploration—a more divergent way of thinking. This divergent way of thinking resulted in some very cool new ways of connecting that I had never considered, and this led to a follow-up laboratory experiment. Collaborating with dancers is definitely an eye opener!