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The Neuron Dance

by Sandi & Dan Finch

No, that’s not new choreography. It is a “dance” we do, though, every time we take a workshop or watch a video. The “neuron dance” is a term that has come to describe how the brain learns something new, encountered of all places in a book on how to play bass.

A neuron Much like the chips in a computer, billions of cells called neurons exist in the brain to transmit information along circuits called synapses. When we try to learn something new, the brain first has to do is work out how that new task is to be done and chart the pathways for it. As you practice the new task, the neural pathway thickens and the concept becomes ingrained. Eventually, what you thought of as difficult becomes easier to you.

The mistake we all make when learning something new is not allowing enough repetition for that ingraining to happen. We call it developing “muscle memory,” but it is that big “muscle” in the head that is learning.

In the old days of round dancing, dancers danced routines without cues. Minutes in the annals of the Round Dance Teachers Association of Southern California tell its members in the 1960s to start cueing a dance but only the first time through and leave the repeated part uncued. How were the dancers able to do that? Repetition is the most obvious clue, but it turns out there is a science to learning.

How We Learn: The Simple Truth About When, Where & Why It Happens, by New York Times science writer Benedict Carey, showed up on my Kindle reading list about the same time someone asked why we seem to have forgotten so much during the pandemic. In the book, he calls the brain “an eccentric learning machine” because we can’t control how it learns or how those neurons receive signals, fire, and pass them along down the pathway. They just do. And if they aren’t used, they don’t.

Science tells us there are ways to help the brain do its dance. In general, the brain picks up patterns more efficiently when given a mixed bag of related tasks, according to a book called The Dancer’s Study Guide. This means tackling a new idea in several ways.
  • First, take notes. Writing helps ingrain what you are hearing, making use of two of your senses at one time. Then, repeat the information to yourself, calling on another sense. Relate what you are learning to something you already know.
  • Go through it all again in 24 hours. This is the science behind why those Sunday reviews at festivals so miraculously bring the Saturday teaches into focus.
  • Take a five-minute break each hour. If you’ve been to a festival or workshop, you know the instructor will break after an hour. This gives your brain a rest, and a clearer mind means it is easier to pick up information. []
  • One of the most important ideas is to tell yourself you CAN do it.
This last one is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, Eddie Palmquist told the members of his exhibition team the same thing. To be able to dance an uncued formation routine, he wrote, “you must make up your mind you are going to learn it. Alert your subconscious.” He had some other ideas for the Palmquist Dancers that he fortunately put in writing.
  • Try to visualize the main figure in each section of a routine, he wrote. That will trigger your brain to bring the whole section to mind.
  • Study the head cues of a dance between dance sessions. “It is necessary to do a little homework,” he wrote. While dancing the routine, mentally tie it in with the music.
  • Know the fundamentals of each figure and understand its alignment in general and in a particular routine.
  • Most importantly, he added, “repetition is necessary.” The trick here is, as the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect but only if the practice is perfect.” If you continually do the figure or routine wrong, the synapses are building a path to always doing it wrong.
This “neuron dance” has been the subject of many studies, in many creatures. MRIs can show the synapses at work, “lighting up" as thoughts occur. One study determined that bees searching for a new hive describe the options to fellow bees with an actual “dance.” Lots of neural pathways light up in the brains of monkeys when they have a choice to make.

MRIs have shown that when a dancer watches a dance video, areas of the brain associated with action “light up” even though the person watching is not moving. This is thought to occur because action neurons are connecting just on seeing a familiar pattern. [Science Daily, 2017]

You can learn a routine from a video, called observational learning. But MRIs have shown that participants who learned solely by video had less brain activity [learned the new motor skill less rapidly  and less precisely] than dancers who learned through practice with a coach. [9 Linectics, 1999]

One interesting study showed that training children in music improved their IQ scores, even for math and linguistics. [Dana Foundation, Cerebrum, 2021] Maybe that explains why doing a new dance step to music helps to learn it, but don’t bank on being better at solving math problems after your next dance lesson :-)

From a club newsletter, March 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, April 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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