Dancer and neuroscientist Julia Basso, PhD, wants us all to dance — together or separately, it’s all good. Dancing with a partner creates a synchrony that’s remarkably like that between a mother and infant, and even dancing alone benefits body and brain alike. Find out how dance produces new neurons and engages brain processes, and why it is that joyful movement optimizes brain function. Plus… Dance for Parkinson’s Disease!
Phil Stieg: Hello. I’d like to welcome to Dr. Julia Basso, director of the Embodied Brain Laboratory at Virginia Tech. She is also a trained improvisational dancer. Today we are going to focus on the body brain connection and how the body, through dance optimizes brain function. Let’s also learn how dance may be used to treat autism or learning and memory disorders. Julia, thanks so much for being with us.
Julia Basso: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Phil Stieg: Just for the benefit of everybody, Can you define what do we actually mean when we talk about dance?
Julia Basso: Sure. So anybody can dance. We’re all dancers. I t is kind of this inherent ability that we see starting around six months of age that people can entrain and in tune to rhythmic patterns of music. Dance has primarily been defined from this Eurocentric perspective. . But really, I’m a proponent of the idea that dance is a human behavior. And just recently, in some work that I did a paper called Dance on the Brain, I generated a new definition for dance specifically that dance encompasses an unlimited array of movement patterns either spontaneously or intentionally generated, manifested for the purpose of ritual, performance or social interactions, and engage a diverse network of brain regions that support neurobehavioral processes.
Phil Stieg: I think we all would agree that exercise in general is good for the brain. What made you choose dance and in particular, improvisational dance?
Julia Basso: Exercise has so many benefits for the brain, especially kind of at the core, producing new neurons for example. And so knowing that exercise does that just from kind of this cardiopulmonary perspective. Dance goes above and beyond the cardiopulmonary aspects. Right. And it has a variety of different aspects, including socioemotional components, rhythmic components, creative components. There’s this generative effect of dance where we create movement anew, and that’s kind of where improvisation comes into play, that we’re using our body, our sensory motor components to drive new ideas, new movement materials. And so we do this through the practice of improvisation.
Phil Stieg: So I’m curious how this all got going. I know that you got your Bachelor of Arts in dance and then you went and got your PhD in neuroscience. Was this sort of a wedding of those two passions, or was there some moment in your life where all of a sudden, the light went on and said, Wait a minute, dance is really important to the way my brain or somebody else’s brain is functioning.
Julia Basso: Sure. So I went to Middlebury College and I double majored in dance and neuroscience while I was there. Early on in my academic life, I really started intertwining these two things. The training there was very much about understanding the body and the peripheral nervous system as an integral part of the nervous system as a whole. And then dove into my PhD and studied the neural mechanisms underlying the motivation for physical activity. So I was really working in an animal rodent laboratory and studying those aspects of the brain.
I always knew I wanted to get back to working with humans and to really studying the effects of physical activity on brain function and physiology. And so I then went to NYU and worked with Wendy Suzuki, where we started looking at the effects of physical activity in humans on how we think and feel. And now starting my own lab, the Embodied Brain Lab, I’ve really gotten into the idea of using dance as this interventional tool to enhance brain function and physiology, specifically because dance is this multimodal form of physical activity.
Phil Stieg: In the paper that you wrote, Dance on the Brain, you talk about this concept of synchronicity, and there’s both intra meaning within the brain or inter-brain synchronicity. Explain what that means to us.
Julia Basso: Sure. One of the things about dance, of course, when we’re dancing together. What’s happening between two people as they’re moving together, engaging in these rhythms, these oscillatory patterns of brain activity, they start to synchronize And this is something that happens very much early in neurodevelopmental patterns of behavior. So when mom and baby, for example, start to interact, brain rhythms start to become synchronous. That means they correlate, they relate to one another. This is how we learn to understand one another.
We do this at a very young age through these sensory motor experiences like, for example, looking, gazing into the eyes or cooing at your baby. The sensory motor connection that develops then kind of gets embedded as this socio emotional understanding that somebody else understands me. If I cry, if I express an emotion, a parent or caretaker is there to be there and understand.
And so that’s exactly what we’re training for in dance. We practice something called mirroring, where, for example, I would start as the leader and you would follow me as much as you can in the same movement patterns that I do. And then what happens is that the brain patterns start to become similar because. Why? Because we’re doing the same things. So that’s inter brain Synchrony between one another.
Intra-brain Synchrony kind of speaks to this idea of communication within the brain. Optimal patterns of brain activity that allow communication within the brain and between brain centers. So whether it be sensory motor or between emotional centers and learning and memory centers.
So brain areas communicate with one another. Why? Because they are anatomically connected to one another, and so they’re actually sending signals to each other, these different regions of the brain. But we can actually engage in particular things, whether it’s exercise, going for a run, communicating with another, or in this instance, dance to enhance the flow of information within the brain.
Phil Stieg: For me, reading your materials when you talk about how movement is important in the brain development. And I was wondering when you’re talking about children rolling over from supine to prone, sitting up, then starting walking or crawling and then walking, is it more that the brain develops first and then you develop the ability to move and do things. Which is first; the chicken or the egg?
Julia Basso: I think that’s a good question. I think it probably happens in tandem and that the more sensory motor behaviors that one can engage in. And even if the caretaker can help engage the child. That engagement and kind of back and forth of the parent child interaction is very important and then helps spurs brain growth and development and then back and forth.
Very early on in utero, as the fetus is starting to move and develop the movement of the fetus actually spurs on this cortical activity, which then further spurs on movement and so forth.
Phil Stieg: I thought you suggested, however, that a child’s ability to respond to rhythm at an earlier age is somewhat suggestive of their brain development in a positive way.
Julia Basso: Sure. The more we dance and move, one of the biggest findings is that the white matter tracks, especially kind of in sensory motor areas or even the corpus callosum connecting between left and right sides of the brain are more enhanced. They’re larger, there’s more white matter. And what that means is that these are the axons of the brain, the areas of the neurons that actually communicate or transmit the information from one area to the next. So the more that we can use physical movement and dance to enhance those communicating structures, then the better off neurodevelopment is going to be.
This kind of relates to learning and memory abilities. It relates to social emotional behaviors. It relates to a whole variety of things. So it’s important to get individuals engaging in physical activity and dance early on in their lives. The more individuals engage in physical activity at these younger stages in life, it predicts physical activity later in life. So if you’re a person who is involved in dance early on, you’re more likely to continue out through your lifelong practice.
And it’s important because as we age, around the middle age years, 45, 60 and up, the brain can start to deteriorate. There have been studies showing that individuals who are more fit either have a higher level of cardiopulmonary fitness or kind of engaged in a lifelong practice of physical activity. Their brain matter is more robust in these later years. There’s less deterioration because the brain is plastic. So we’re able to change it.
Phil Stieg: So thinking about the way one studies the brain, I was trying to understand how you actually go about doing this. You can’t put an MRI scan around somebody’s brain while they’re dancing. I presume you talk a little bit about doing electrical measurements, EEG measurements in the brain. I think that would be hard to do with all the motion going on. So how are you really looking at this so that you can get the data that you are getting?
Julia Basso: We’re really trying to capture the brain in motion. And that’s something I talk about in my paper that it is difficult. A lot of brain imaging happens while we’re still while we’re laying down, for example, in the MRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging. In this instance, we can actually have individuals moving around, and in this case, dancing while they’re wearing the electroencephalography cap.
All of the equipment kind of goes on a backpack – it’s really quite amazing. We just had Little Buck and his Memphis Juke and Company here. We had Little Buck performing, doing the Memphis Juken, which is this kind of improvisational form of dance out of Memphis, Tennessee, that is kind of described as the ballet of hip hop, a lot of flow and footwork, intricate movement patterns. . It was amazing. It was one of the most exciting scientific days of my career. And they were moving. They were kind of doing all kinds of movements. And we were able to record pretty sound EEG data, which is really exciting.
Phil Stieg: But in addition to that, I gather that you can also have a dancer sit in an MRI machine and imagine dancing or visualize dancing. And then look at those brains that are activated. And are those similar to what you see when somebody is actively dancing?
Julia Basso: Yeah. So that’s some of the kind of exciting work that had come out. People had the idea because you couldn’t image a moving brain. So what about imaging a still brain while people watch dance? And so this is where the idea of this Action Observation Network or Mirror Neuron system came about. So when dancers watch movement, what ends up happening is that the brain activity, this Action Observation Network becomes active. So what ends up happening is that when an individual watches dance or watches a movement form, the same brain areas are lighting up as actual mover themselves. And if you’re more trained at a particular thing, say, for example, a ballerina watching another ballerina, a ballet dancer moving through space, and that the body knows that movement inherently, those areas are going to light up in an even stronger way, more powerful way. This is another idea of this kind of Interbrain Synchrony and knowing what the other is doing. And as dancers, too, we know that when I watch dance, I’m in my head that is going through my head, I’m in the choreography. I can feel it in my body.
Phil Stieg: You’re in the zone.
Julia Basso: You’re in the zone and you’re enjoying that experience of watching another dance and wanting to do it, wanting to be on stage because those same brain areas are lighting up.
Phil Stieg: Do you envision applying this to other things, say, like basketball and looking at whether basketball is better for the brain or what different effects it has on the brain than dance?
Julia Basso: Sure. I think it’s a really interesting idea, especially when it comes to team sports. And so you would imagine, especially in professional athletes who are so in tune with their partners on the basketball court or in the baseball Stadium, that you need to be in tune with the other members on that team because you need to know what they’re going to be doing. This whole thing is a little bit about planning and understanding, knowing what that person is going to do in advance. It helps us. If we can know and understand what others are going to do in the future, then we can better prepare ourselves for our own actions. It helps us to become part of the social cohort. So there’s really an evolutionary tag to it. We need to understand what others are doing and what others are going to do in the future so that we can plan for our own actions.
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Narrator: Studies have shown that programs for people with movement disorders which combine social engagement with movement like group exercise – even sports like boxing – can be beneficial.
Dance instructor: …Sitting tall? Seven .. eight .. going in One …Two …
Narrator: These are not typical dance students. The class you are listening to is part of a pioneering program designed for people with Parkinson’s Disease.
This program is called “Dance for PD” and has been running at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York since 2001. David Leventhal directs the program…
David Leventhal: When we started 20 years ago, we had no idea whether dance would be accessible or appropriate to people with Parkinson’s. Things that people with Parkinson’s struggle with are addressed head on and dance. So the idea was, let’s take professional dancers, put them in the same room with people living with Parkinson’s and see what happens.
I taught the first class and I saw people who came into the room struggling with walking, struggling with rigidity, struggling with their balance, struggling with things like facial expression – all aspects of movement. In the course of the first 20 minutes of class, I saw transformation happen. I saw people moving with more fluidity. And I saw people dancing with each other and connecting with each other, people who may have been experiencing quite a bit of social isolation in their lives, coming together and finding a connection nonverbally, just being able to look at someone’s eyes and dance with them, to mirror their movements, to do something meaningful together as a community.
Participant 1: My hands are so stiff, I can’t straighten my hand out. Just start moving gently and all of that stiffness goes away.
Participant 2: There is something magical that takes place in there. I’m not sitting there thinking about my body. I’m just trying to move.
Participant 3: At first I didn’t want to do it because I thought I’d be associated with a lot of people in the stage of Parkinson’s that I didn’t want to be at, and that would be discouraging to me. But I finally went, and I’ve never regretted the decision.
Leventhal: We start class in a circle, so everyone is dancing together, everyone is equal, and we’re all sort of mirroring each other. Some people need to go a little slower, some people choose to do only certain movements. But there is a sense of a unified body moving together, and everybody is entraining to that circular environment, to the circular community.
This class is about dance and music and community. And in this class, people are given an opportunity to shed their “Parkinson’s persona”, and to really think of themselves as dancers.
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Phil Stieg: I’m completely intrigued by your concept of dance therapy, and you suggest that it’s going to be beneficial for the autistic spectrum. Do you have a specific example of where dance therapy has been used for an autistic child or adult and had a positive result?
Julia Basso: Yeah, there have been a few studies, and there was a recent meta-analysis that I think looks around six or so studies that did find a significant positive effect, especially on the social emotional skills, kind of the social skill impairments that are prominent in individuals with autism spectrum disorder, and that dance and dance movement therapy can help to enhance the ability to communicate with others, especially the ability to engage in eye contact, the ability to engage in vocal communication, and the ability to engage in mirroring or tracking others.
Phil Stieg: It seems dance therapy may also be beneficial during depression. And as I would anticipate, people have used it during COVID as a way to minimize the sense of isolation. What’s the data on that?
Julia Basso: Yeah. That’s one of the most prominent things that’s been used for depression and anxiety disorders, lifting people’s moods in general. We ran a study during Covid, actually, because everybody was isolated in their homes. And so we ran a study online where we brought people together and had them dance together online. So we called it moving online together. And what we found was that even a single session of online dance 60 minutes in time enhanced positive effects. So it decreased depression and decreased negative mood states and increased self-esteem and positive effects.
And not only that, but it enhanced social connectivity or the feeling of being in community with one another. When we looked at those relationships, what we found was those individuals who actually experienced greater increases in self-esteem or greater decreases in negative affect showed the biggest gains in their social connectivity. So we’re very excited about that because it really shows this socio emotional connection, and what I call the kind of the body-mind-community connection.
Phil Stieg: Can you have that social community sense, even though you and I are sitting around the Zoom. Can that sense be transmitted across electronically?
Julia Basso: Apparently so, we were surprised. Normally we’re in a dance studio being together, and then you can engage in that sense of touch. I mean, when you’re dancing together online, there’s a lot of things that are missing. But we were able to choreograph together online. I was teaching improvisation online. We were able to mirror one another over the screen so we could do a lot of different things.
Phil Stieg: I would hope that every human listening to this has had that moment where something goes on some song that they love and their body just starts to move. You know, there’s a whole era that loved Thriller, you know, Michael Jackson and their bodies, you’d be standing there talking, and all of a sudden they’d start moving. What’s going on there?
Julia Basso: Sure. And this is a bit of an idea of entrainment, too, when we hear these rhythms. So, of course, sound travels in waves. When those sound waves hit the Ear, they get transmitted basically into our auditory cortices, which are in our temporal lobes. Right underneath the ear. The ear decodes all of this information such that it breaks down the rhythms. The brain can pick up on these sound rhythms and we end up hearing this sound. The brain entrains to the rhythms of the sound. So the brain starts gyrating or getting into this rhythmic movement that then from the auditory cortex is transferred to more sensory motor cortices. So then these sensory motor cortices start gyrating in the same way, and then subsequently it goes out through the spinal cord and into our body, and we can then move. So there’s this entrainment of rhythm that happens in this very specific way through these brain processes and transfer of information. And that’s what’s happening as we kind of entrain to the rhythms of the music.
In a commercialized way, people have started to try to find, like Alpha rhythms or movement beta beats and so forth, these binaural beats that people have tried to entrain the brain in these particular rhythmic frequencies to induce calm state of mind and things like that.
Phil Stieg: Just as long as it isn’t Muzak.
Julia Basso: (laugh)
Phil Stieg: And finally, where do you plan on going with all this? Ten years from now when you’ve reached your goal? What does the future hold for you and for this dance on the brain theory?
Julia Basso: From here, I want to start building out and developing more programs allowing different populations of individuals to dance – individuals with depression or anxiety disorders, using this for different clinical populations and also basically just to study the basic science of how dance affects the brain. I think it’s a really fantastic tool to help in a variety of different clinical populations, but also just with healthy populations. I think that the aim of enhancing brain function and enhancing the way we think and feel through joyful movement is an aim for all human beings. So I’m really excited about this idea of studying the body mind connection, how we can use the body to optimize brain function and physiology. And ideally, me and my partner, Rachel Roo, who runs a lot of the dance curriculum right here in Blacksburg, Virginia. We hope to develop an Institute for body mind movement for both healthy and clinical populations. And so we’re starting to apply for some national endowment of the arts research labs grants and other grants to support that and really bring dance to the world in kind of this fun, unique way where we’re focusing on dance for health and wellness.
Phil Stieg: Well, good luck. You have the advantage of being able to get support from both the art world and also the basic science world. So you’ve covered your bases very well.
Julia Basso: Yeah.
Phil Stieg: Julia, it’s been delightful getting to spend this time with you. I think that you have highlighted how important physical activity and more importantly, how important dance is and the importance that it plays in our motor, sensory, cognitive, social, emotional, rhythmic and creative skills. People will walk away from this I think feeling much more positive about the role of dance in our society. Thank you so much.
Julia Basso: Thank you for having me.