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  • Scientists Wonder: Why Do We Dance?

    Posted on May 14th, 2018 admin No comments

     Why Do We Dance

    My wife and I are square dancers (and also do rounds and contras, ballroom, and social dancing).  Why do we love to dance?  Let’s look at some scientific answers to the question, “Why do we dance?”


    Kimerer LaMothe, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, labels dance as “a quintessential human experience.” She considers dance to be those movements which define who we are, as individuals and as a species. “Dance is not an accidental or supplemental activity in which humans choose to engage or not. Dance is essential to our survival as human beings.” In other words, circularly, we dance because we are human (she ignores the mating dances of many other species) and we are human because we dance.vector-kokopelli

    LaMothe feels that “Any dance tradition or technique represents movement patterns that those persons have found useful for connecting them to something they perceive as having value—whether tribe or tradition, pleasure or skill, community or divinity, heaven or Earth. Dance as movement is inherently relational.”


    An article in LiveScience takes an evolutionary approach. Here, dance seems to be defined as movement coordinated with rhythmic sounds. “The answer to why we dance – and even why some people are better dancers than others – can be found in evolution,” writes Assistant Managing Editor Denise Chow. “A study published in the Public Library of Science’s genetics journal in 2006 suggested that long ago the ability to dance was actually connected to the ability to survive.

    PSM_V41_D770_Dance_of_nahikaiAccording to the study, dancing was a way for our prehistoric ancestors to bond and communicate, particularly during tough times. As a result, scientists believe that early humans who were coordinated and rhythmic could have had an evolutionary advantage.” (For a detailed if out-of-date and now politically incorrect account, read “The Evolution of Dancing” in Popular Science Monthly, Oct. 1892)


    “A more recent study suggests babies are born to dance, with the ability to bop to the beat as young as 5 months old. The scientists aren’t sure why humans might have this innate ability.” There is an amazing number of cute Youtube videos of toddlers bopping to the beat. This is probably the best time to get the kids out on the square dance floor!


    Writing in Scientific American, neurologist John Krakauer suggests that we dance because “coordinated movement” acts to “stimulate our brains’ reward centers.” There seems to be a three-fold pattern involved in the neurological rewards of dance.

    First, movement itself provides pleasurable stimulation. “Scientists aren’t sure why we like movement so much, but there’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest we get a pretty big kick out of it,” says Krakauer. Most of us are familiar with the pleasant tiredness that follows exercise—and dancing.

    Secondly, “Music is known to stimulate pleasure and reward areas like the orbitofrontal cortex, located directly behind one’s eyes, as well as a midbrain region called the ventral striatum. In particular, the amount of activation in these areas matches up with how much we enjoy the tunes. In addition, music activates the cerebellum, at the base of the brain, which is involved in the coordination and timing of movement.”

    So combining movement with music is doubly pleasant. “Maybe synchronizing music, which many studies have shown is pleasing to both the ear and brain, and movement—in essence, dance—may constitute a pleasure double play.”Young people on the party .

    A third factor is social. “…Mounting evidence suggests that we are sensitive and attuned to the movements of others’ bodies, because similar brain regions are activated when certain movements are both made and observed. For example, the motor regions of professional dancers’ brains show more activation when they watch other dancers compared with people who don’t dance.”

    The result is a kind of neurological trifecta: music plus movement plus other people moving to music gives the brain a triple whammy of joy-juice.

    Whether the explanation is psychological, evolutionary, or neurological, the scientific answers to “Why do we dance?” all boil down to the reason my wife and I like to square dance: It’s friendship set to music, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.


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