Did Humans Evolve To Dance, part 4? The Movement of Mirror Neurons

Today I return to the question I asked in my May post: what would neuroscientists say about the idea that dancing evolved as a practice for helping people exercise the very capacity that enabled them to survive their early births—namely, the ability to learn to make new movements?

I do so by way of an anecdote.

On Sunday, my family and I gave a concert. As part of the concert, Geoff (my pianist/partner) and I did a dual open improvisation. I had no idea what he would play. He had no idea how I would dance. Our only rules were that he not watch me (so as not to worry about what to play for that movement) and I not listen to him (so as not to worry about what music was coming next). Our task was to meet somewhere beyond the mindly chatter, at that place where life is being given to us in the present moment.

Before we began, I asked outloud: Why do such a thing? I answered: Isn’t that what life is all about? In every moment, as it is given to you, you need to figure out what moves you are going to make. How are you going to move in ways that relate you to those on whom your survival depends?


The 1996 discovery and naming of “mirror neurons” catalyzed a revolution in how neuroscientists think about the relational capacities of human beings. Mirror neurons are a class of brain cells that fire in various parts of the brain when a person observes another person making a physical movement. This firing creates in the observer the very pattern of neural connections that the observer would need to activate in order to make the same movement.

For many scientists, this seemingly innate human ability to make an internal image of observed movement provides the biological template for empathy. As V.K. Ramachandran argues in The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us, mirror neurons “appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full culture” for the way in which they allow humans “to adopt each other’s point of view and empathize with one another” (2011: xv-xvi; chapter 4).

The description of these neurons as “mirrors” suggests that their mode of operation is passive, visual, and individual. It is a matter of seeing. However, a closer reading of how these neurons work suggests that more is in play. As scientists describe it, the path to empathy opens through an observer’s experience of making a movement. As I watch what another person does and mirror neurons fire, I know what it feels like to make that movement, even though I am not myself making it. It is this ability to move with that enables me to infer what kind of mental or emotional state impelled that movement. I can move with and thus feel and think with the person who makes that movement.

In this reading, bodily movement is the medium through which mirror neurons operate. In this example, I would not be able to see movement at all—my mirror neurons would not fire—if I had not already moved my bodily self in ways that quickened a sensory awareness of myself moving. I need not have made the exact same movement in the past, but my mirror neurons, in making a pattern that corresponds to the movement I am seeing, will use the sensory awareness I have previously activated as the material for making that kinetic image.

The implications here are several. For one, there is no movement that is simply there for us to observe and reflect. We learn to see movement—we train ourselves to see particular kinds of movements—beginning in the womb based on the movements we ourselves are making. Every visual sensation we receive appears to us by way of patterns of movement we have already made and the education we have received and remembered by making them.

Second, this reading also suggests that the firing of our mirror neurons is not simply given to us. Whatever bodily movements we make and have made affects the ability of those neurons to fire. How we move, the degree to which we practice moving and doing so consciously impacts the kind of movements we are most able to notice, recreate, and move with.

Third, this reading suggests that those people who do engage in practices of bodily movement can expand their sensory awareness in ways that will make them more successful in moving with others. As Alan Fogel confirms in The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness, mirror neurons can “generate efferent signals to the muscles that lead us to make similar, imitative movements.” He adds that, “Via practice and continued observation, body schema self-awareness can expand” (2009: 207). In other words, humans can cultivate an ability to sense and respond to movement patterns. Humans can cultivate a vulnerability to being moved by certain kinds of movements that have proven life-enabling.

In sum, as a descriptor for these brain cells, the term “mirror” is misleading. It serves to conceal the constitutive role played by bodily movement in our ability to relate empathically with others (and thus create a distinctively human culture). It conceals the cultural and social forces at work shaping the sensory patterns through which that movement is noticed and registered as meaningful. Finally, it conceals the role that dance may continue to play in our formation as ethical, empathic human selves.

If mirror neurons are critical to our capacity for empathy—and thus to our survival as early-born, slow-maturing primates—then humans who are able to sense and respond to movement patterns better than others would be at a distinct advantage in meeting the challenges that, as we have seen, are associated with the cooperative breeding and increasingly complex social relations of early humans. In so far as dancing represents an activity in which humans practice learning new movements—practice learning how to move from others, with others, towards others—then dancing may be an activity that evolved in tandem with the ability of humans to move empathetically with others, and done so as the enabling condition of that empathy.

The practice of dancing, as it arose, may have propelled the development of brains that were better able to make new movements in all registers—whether cooking, hunting, child rearing, and general relating. It is possible that “dance” is the activity that evolved to exercise and educate the movement-making capacity for which human brains grew big. And thus, homo sapiens evolved as those creatures who are uniquely capable of learning to make new movements from one another as well as from the animals, plants, and elements circulating in their environments.


I think back to my dual improvisation with Geoff. Both of us are trained in our respective art forms. Both of us have had years upon years of lessons in particular techniques. This training has not only taught us how to move, it has educated our senses such that we are willing and able to notice movement patterns—in sound and bodily form—and respond in ways that align with our ongoing health and well being, further exercising our capacity to move.

Said otherwise, our practices have cultivated in us not only an ability to deliver specific patterns, but an ability to make new ones, where that creative act is not mediated through thinking, but through the act of making movements that we have learned. The act of making these movements of hands on keys or of limbs through space, for each of us, opens us along the surfaces sensory awareness we have cultivated so that we can and do receive new impulses to move as they arise in the moment, in response to the moment, as an expression of whatever is happening. Dancing and playing, we practice staying in touch with that very quality that enables us to relate with one another at all.


Could this example and analysis of mirror neurons provide clues to how and why dancing is a vital art? Is there support for this reading in the anthropological record of how people have actually danced?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s