So you’re watching a ballet performance while simultaneously imagining yourself doing your own little pirouette. New research is showing that your imagination may be enough to get your brain and muscles thinking you’re the newest incarnation of the Black Swan.
In a study published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, researchers found that watching live performances of dance resulted in muscle-specific motor responses in viewers, even when those viewers had no formal training in these movements. Study participants were either frequent dance spectators of ballet, Indian dance, or ‘‘novices’’ who never watched dance.
The researchers tested participants using a technique called single pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to measure corticospinal excitability, or signals in the hand and arm. “We know that if the subject is watching a motor action performed by somebody else, the motor cortex is excited,” explains lead author Corinne Jola, Ph.D., Research Fellow at University of Surrey Guildford, United Kingdom. “Knowing how excited the motor cortex is, we know how ‘tuned-in’ the brain is for actions.”
The so-called “empathic” ability of participants was also tested. Researchers used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a standard questionnaire used to measure cognitive empathy. It includes a “fantasy scale,” with questions designed to gauge the ability to immerse yourself into a fictional character, story, or film, for example.
Frequent ballet spectators showed larger responses in the arm muscles when watching ballet compared to when they watched other performances. They also found that that the higher Indian dance spectators scored on the fantasy subscale of the IRI, the larger their readings were when watching Indian dance. “Our results show that even without physical training, corticospinal excitability can be enhanced as a function of either visual experience, or the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional characters," says Jola.
Although the researchers didn’t test any health effects, Jola concedes watching dance could potentially to good things for your body, though it would be difficult to prove.
“It may be possible that transposing oneself mentally into the body of a dancer has some beneficial effects for you, as in your somatosensory perception of yourself, such as the imagined feeling (that) you were dancing with somebody else,” she says.
While the muscle specific movements shown in the study are imperceptible to the eye and won’t help you burn calories, the popularity of dance, especially with shows like Dancing with the Stars, may be enough to get people to get out and get their groove on, which can benefit health. Studies show that dance improves balance and posture as well provides some mental health boosts.
“Hopefully, watching dance on TV instigates a few people to try it out themselves, either at home alone or with their partners or by joining a club,” says Jola. “We should not ignore the power of dance."
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