Welcoming Well-Being: How Dance can help the brain.

Dance can help change the brain. This statement seems sweeping and unfounded, and yet it is true. Much like how our life experiences change the brain, dance can also. I’ve previously written about how dance can help those with Parkinson’s, a neurological condition that can also affect the mental health of a patient (Read More Here). But the changes dance can make to the brain are not just isolated to those with Parkinson’s, Dance can also benefit many, if not all humans.


The first way in which dance can change the brain, is that dance improves your mood. Many will already accept that grooving to a good tune or bopping along to the radio will make you a little happier, but there is also research to support this for those more sceptical. The research here studied adolescent females experiencing anxiety and depression, and looked into how they rated their own health levels (Duberg, et al., 2013).  Half of those studied took part in dance sessions that focused on the joy of movement and the other half of participants did not. Both group were of the same age and gender. For 8 months the participants either took part in two weekly dance sessions that lasted 75 minutes each, or they did not. Both groups were followed up at 8 month, 12 months and 20 months after baseline measures were taken. Overall the group of participants involved in the dance sessions improved their self-rated levels of health, measures which included emotional health, more than those who were not involved in the sessions. The changes dance had to the participants self-rated health, lasted up to a year after they stopped the dance sessions. 91% of the intervention group expressed the dance sessions as a positive experience, providing evidence that dance can make us happier.

However, happiness is a controversial measurement, that arguably can’t be measured objectively. There is also an older study that attempted to describe the mood changes experienced after an aerobic dance session (McInman and Berger, 1993). When measuring the short-term effects of dance, the researchers found significant positive changes in mood after they had been involved in the session. These changes were compared to measures in a control group of university students that did not attend the aerobic dance session. The changes of mood found in the control group who did not take part in the dance session were minimal. Positive changes in mood did not directly correlate with other measures taken, like self-concept. Levels of anger, depression and tension decreased significantly in those who did the aerobic dance session and a measure of vigour vastly increased post activity, thus supporting the notion that dance can uplift the mood and help you feel a lot more energised.

Further to mood improvement dance can also help decrease the rate at which the brain ages. The benefits of dance to the mind can help ‘ward’ off dementia in those over the age of 75 (Verghese, et al., 2003). In 2003, Verghese and colleagues published their longitudinal study on the topic of dementia risks in the elderly population. The research followed 469 participants all older than 75, who did not have dementia at baseline. Throughout the study the researchers the leisure activities that the participants did regularly, and correlated these against those who did develop dementia in the period the study took place. Leisure activities that had an active element did not diminish the risk of dementia, however, did have an overall benefit to the cardiovascular system. Leisure activities that did decrease the risk of dementia were activities such as; reading (35% decrease), and crossword puzzles at least 4 times a week (47% decrease). However, two activities gave the biggest decreases to dementia risk, these were playing board games (74% decrease) and dancing frequently (76% decrease). Providing evidence that dance can help ward off neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s before someone has been diagnosed with the condition. There were also cognitive and age related correlations to the risk of developing dementia that may have been extraneous variables when looking at how leisure activities may have decreased dementia risk. In other words, those that took part in dance frequently may have been younger and had higher pre-exiting cognitive abilities, thus making it seem like the dance decreased the risk more than what it would in other individuals. However, within the study age, gender and education were all accounted for when finding the decrease in dementia risk meaning dance was indeed the leisure activity that decreased the risk, regardless of the individual (Verghese, et al., 2003).

On top of this dance also serves as a great activity to boost cognitive capacity. (Amen, D., 2009). When learning new steps and routines we are exercising both the body and the mind. Dance helps to increase muscle memory as well as at the same time making changes to the cerebellum to help with balance and dizziness (Bergland, 2013).  When learning to dance we learn about new ways to appreciate our bodies, we get a new sense of ourselves through proprioception, the ability to know where one’s body is in space. As we dance our shape constantly changes and so our brain needs to reprocesses our position frequently, thus helping to use and improve the ability of our brain’s to do this task. In turn this helps with more everyday tasks like moving around and balancing without tripping. Research suggests that through years of training ballet dancers can actually suppress the brains signal of dizziness and thus continue to spin and leap through their routines without once getting dizzy (Nigmatullina, et al., 2015), thus showing that dance can effect our self-motion perception, one part of our cognitive capacity.

Dance is also gaining more prominence as a therapy for with mental illness (Jackson, 2004). Now with many universities offering masters in dance movement therapy to help aid those recover and regain a higher quality of life.

Dance can have many benefits to the brain, this has just touched on a few without going into too much detail. Different styles can affect everyone differently, so there’s bound to be one type of dance that you feel benefits you more than any other. If it’s not just for your physical health, keep going for your mental and cognitive health too!

In the future I will go into more details about many of these adaptations the brain makes when we dance. But for now I hope you enjoyed and, as always, be sure to let me know your thoughts in the comments, or via my social media.

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Resources

Dance and Mood

Duberg, et al., 2013 – https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1390784

McInman and Berger, 1993 — https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/44357140/McInman___Berger__1993_-_self_concept_and_mood_with_dance.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1518088695&Signature=h2n8XrOlsGJ2peiLNAeoFr7f3xc%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DSelf-concept_and_mood_changes_associated.pdf

Dance and Cognitive Ability

Verghese, et al., 2003 – http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa022252

Amed, 2009 – https://www.amazon.com/Magnificent-Mind-Any-Age-Potential/dp/0307339106

Bergland, 2015 – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/why-is-dancing-so-good-your-brain

Nigmatullina, et al., 2015 – https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/25/2/554/305011

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