If you have any experience in the performing arts — specifically dance or music — now might be a good time to call up mom and dad to thank them for enrolling you in that jazz dance class or signing you up for those violin lessons when you were a kid. It turns out they were right about their intentions, because new research has emerged proving that learning dance and music is extremely beneficial for the brain.
A recent study conducted by the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research found that both dance and music training have more profound effects on the brain than researchers previously thought. While both forms of art require serious training involving mental and physical energy, it’s now understood that dance and music affect the brain in opposite ways.
Researchers examined the white matter structures of several expert dancers and musicians using advanced imaging technology. White matter was largely ignored in favor of grey matter up until it was discovered just how important a role it plays in the brain. You can think of white matter as the subway system of your brain that connects different regions of grey matter.
First, the researchers compared the effects of dance and music training on the subjects’ white matter structures. After that, they looked at the relationship between a dance/musically-trained brain and dance/music abilities.
The researchers found that the white matter regions of dancers differed from the white matter regions of musicians. Of those differences included sensory and motor pathways when observed at both primary and advanced cognitive processing levels.
In the musicians, researchers found strong and coherent connections of fibre bundles that linked the sensory and motor brain regions. Their fibre bundles also connected the two hemispheres of the brain. There were fibre bundles in the same regions of the dancers’ white matter regions as there were in the musicians’, however the dancers’ fibre bundles were much broader.
Since dancers have to train their whole body, it makes sense that their fibre bundles differ from those of musicians in the ways that they do. Having to engage in full-body training leads to larger and more further reaching fibres for broader connections. Musicians, on the other hand, typically focus on a limited number of body parts in their training — like the fingers, mouth or foot — leading to a smaller representation in the neural cortex.
What’s perhaps even more interesting is that the brains of dancers and musicians differed more from each other than they did when compared to a control group of subjects with no formal training in dance or music. The researchers say that this may have been observed because of all the uncontrolled variables present in the control group, which was made up of people with a wide range of experiences. The dancers and musicians, however, were specifically selected as part of this study to be “pure experts” in their fields.
The hope is that research like this can help in areas of education and rehabilitation. By better understanding how regions of the brain are connected and how they might change with training, patients with conditions and diseases that affect these regions of the brain may be able to improve their functioning with formal dance and music training.
As far as the benefits of dance and music training goes for the rest of us, we’d probably be doing our brains and our bodies a generous favor by signing up for a ballroom dance class or dusting off the piano keys to play a little tune. Even if you haven’t busted a move or picked up that musical instrument in years, there’s no reason why you can’t get reacquainted with it now.
And for those with no experience in dance or music at all, it’s never too late to learn something new!