How dancing enhances social collaboration
I’m standing in front of you. You’re about three feet away, facing me. I give you a challenge: move as I move. I raise my left arm to the side, bring it over my head, and then draw it down in front of my face, palm facing you. I repeat to the right. As I do, you make the same movements, at nearly the same time. As if you were my mirror.
It’s easy. You don’t have to concentrate or even think about the task to make my movements. You just notice what I’m doing and your body follows.
I could execute a faster or more complicated sequence of movements and test the limits of your ability to mirror me. In that case, you’d have to pay closer attention, or perhaps practice a few times to get it right. But the fact would remain: humans have an uncanny, innate ability to imitate the movement of others.
Called motor mimicry, this capacity is vital to our humanity. According to recent research, it is thickly entwined with our ability to understand and empathize with others. Motor mimicry is a primary building block of human relations (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017; Kampfe & Kanske, 2023). It is also one of the skills humans exercise when they dance.
Key to motor mimicry is the oft-touted mirror neuron system (MNS). As many are now familiar, when one person sees another person moving, a collection of mirror neurons fire in the brain of the first person, recreating the specific pattern of neuro-muscular coordination needed to make the perceived movement.
Nevertheless, in this exchange, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading. It suggests that motor mimicry is passive – as if brains simply reflect what is happening in the outside world. And it feels like it – because mimicking seems so easy and happens so ‘naturally.’ In fact, early explanations of the MNS posited that humans have an innate body schema that enables them to map what they see onto their own bodies (Meltzoff & Moore, 1997).
More recent theories acknowledge that our ability to perceive and recreate movement patterns develops as a result of sensory experiences and relationships – “associative learning through sensory-motor pairings” (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017). It’s a complicated process – and one that can go wrong.
Elements of Motor Mimicry
What does it take to mimic someone else’s bodily movements?
1) See a movement.
To mimic you, I must first see your movement. But patterns of movement aren’t static and fixed objects. They unfold in space and over time. Even to see them we must be able to remember them.
2) In relation to me.
Nor is my ability to see you simply physical. It is shaped by circumstances – my mood, my angle of vision, my sightedness, my level of fatigue and hunger, my relationship to the person moving, my experience with similar movements, my own belief or not in my ability to move with another, and more. In other words, in order to see you, I need to be in a relationship to you where your movement can appear to me.
3) As like me.
In order to mimic your movement, I must also recognize you as like me – as sharing a morphology – such that your movement appears as something I can do, as a potential action I might make. An arm for an arm. A leg for a leg.
4) As benefiting me.
I also need to know that mimicking your movement will be beneficial to me. This knowledge is not fully conscious. The pleasure of mimicking movement is intrinsic – it’s fun. And as I pursue that pleasure, I find others – the pleasure of testing my own ability, trying something new, connecting with myself, and connecting with others.
A Complex Process
Neither neither passive nor guaranteed, motor mimicry is a complex process, and the stakes are high. If motor mimicry is successful, I open possibilities for what researchers call emotional contagion – a sharing of emotional states which finds expression in mutual understanding, empathy, collaboration, creative problem solving, mating and more (Basso 2021).
However, every step of the process offers opportunities for missing the movement. I don’t see it. I don’t relate to it as like me or relevant to me. I can’t anticipate a benefit. This ability – so vital to human society – is precarious and easily derailed. A decreased inability to mimic another’s movements has been implicated in a range of social and psychological disorders, from autism to depression (Kampfe & Kanske, 2023; Basso, 2021).
Dance as Resource
Dancing, for most of human history and into the present, is and remains a medium for exercising our inbuilt capacity for mimicking the movement of others. Recent studies confirm that ongoing practice in dance strengthens our capacity to notice, remember, recreate, and repeat patterns of movement that facilitate personal well-being and social cooperation (Basso, 2021).
When we dance, we practice paying attention to patterns of movement – those of other people as well as our own. We get better at recognizing certain patterns and combinations associated with a given culture or technique.
In watching and recreating movement patterns, we develop an enhanced sensory awareness of our own selves. What we see inspires us, challenges us, to dig deeper in ourselves in order to match it. As our physical capacity grows, so does the range of patterns we are able to perceive and the emotions we are able to share and express.
In these ways, when we dance we develop our innate, intrinsically rewarding ability to perceive, recreate, and repeat the movement of others. We enhance our ability to understand and share emotional and mental states (Gujing et al, 2019; McGarry & Russo, 2011). We change our brains (Basso, 2021)
Watch other people move, and as you do, listen to the whispers in yourself. Move as what you see. Discover what you can do. Bond with who you know. And dance.
Basso, Julia C., Medha K. Satyal, Rachel Rugh. Dance on the Brain: Enhancing Intra- and Inter-Brain Synchrony, Front. Hum. Neurosci., 07 January 2021, Sec. Cognitive Neuroscience, Volume 14 – 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2020.584312
Kampfe, Maike Salazar, Phillip Kanske, Mimicry and Affective Disorders. Front. Psychiatry, 25 January 2023, Sec. Social Neuroscience, Volume 13, 2022, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.1105503
Gujing, L., Hui, H., Xin, L., Lirong, Z., Yutong, Y., Guofeng, Y., et al. Increased insular connectivity and enhanced empathic ability associated with dance/music training, Neural Plast. 2019: 9693109, https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/9693109
McGarry, L. M., and Russo, F. A. Mirroring in dance/movement therapy: potential mechanisms behind empathy enhancement, Arts Psychother, 2011, 38, 178–184, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2011.04.005
Meltzoff AN, Moore MK. Explaining Facial Imitation: A Theoretical Model. Early Dev Parent, 1997 Sep; 6(3-4):179-192, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24634574/
Prochazkova Eliska, Mariska E. Kret. Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 80, 2017, Pages 99-114, ISSN 0149-7634, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.05.013
Also published on Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-a-body-knows/202303/why-do-i-feel-an-urge-to-mimic-your-movement