Tag Archives: evolution

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?


Did Humans Evolve to Dance? Additional Clues

In my last blog (March 31), I asked whether dancing might be an activity on par with cooking that humans evolved to do. In asking the question, I was not asking whether homo sapiens evolved around 250,000 years ago and then learned to dance. I was asking whether dancing not only preceded the emergence of homo sapiens, but played a significant, constitutive role in enabling humans to become the big-brained, symbol-wielding, ultrasocial creatures we are.

Are we humans human because our hominid ancestors danced? Could it be that dancing helped determine how we would allocate the calories concentrated through cooking methods during the million years of the Pleistocene era before homo sapiens emerged? Could it be that we evolved big brains in order to dance?

I find clues in the work of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. In her book Mothers and Others, Hrdy argues that there was a line of apes at some point in the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago), before the appearance of modern-sized human brains and language use, who engaged in cooperative breeding (Hrdy 2009: 31). In such an arrangement, she explains, mothers would band together with partners, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers—or alloparents—in order to raise their children. In turn, infants raised under such conditions would have needed skills to help them cultivate relationships with those on whom they depended—skills of sensing and responding to the bodily movements of others. Is this where human dancing began?

In making her argument, Hrdy dislodges the idea that maternal care is the norm for primates. As she argues, 40-50 percent of living primates do not demonstrate exclusive maternal/infant care. In contrast to attachment theorist John Bowlby, she insists that continuous-care-and-contact is a strategy of last resort for those who lack alternatives (Hrdy 2009: 85). Rather than one parenting solution, there are multiple options, including cooperative breeding. One line of apes, synchronous with homo erectus, adopted it.

As Hrdy explains, the results of adopting this method of child rearing may explain observed differences between infant apes and infant humans with respect to their willingness to form attachments with caregivers. Although she affirms that, “Neither in humans nor in any other ape does the initial impulse to connect need to be learned” (Hrdy 2009: 60), she cites the work of primatologists who chart divergent paths of development. In the first few weeks of life, infant apes seem to smile and respond to caregivers with a curiosity and attentiveness similar to human infants, but then they simply lose interest. Human children do not. As she affirms, in primates, “early flickerings of empathic interest—what might even be termed tentative quests for intersubjective engagement—fade away instead of developing and intensifying as they do in human children” (Hrdy 2009: 58).

Further, using the example of contemporary infants, Hrdy surmises that the medium in which this impulse to connect first developed was bodily movement. Here she quotes the work of developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff: “infants’ connection to others emerges from the fact that the bodily movement patterns they see others perform are coded like the ones they themselves perform” (Hrdy 2009: 49). Human infants are particularly adept at noticing the bodily movements of others—especially movements of facial features. Infants notice movement in the range of sensory awareness that they themselves have. And infants not only notice these movements, they are moved by them to move in response. As infants move in response to caregivers, their movements spark a similar response from caregivers, initiating a round of responsive movements that yield obvious pleasure in both parties. One smile begets another.

This “coding” of bodily movements that Meltzoff describes occurs in the regions of the brain identified in the 1990s as “mirror neurons.” However, attention to movement patterns reveals that much more is happening than simply a reflection or even an imitation. The images that “mirror” neurons create are not visual. They are kinetic—they exist in the infant as a possibility for mobilizing one’s bodily self in a similar pattern.

Given the need to attract attention to themselves and create life-enabling relationships with a range of caregivers, then, human infants developed a remarkable and distinctive ability to notice and respond to the bodily movements of others who look very different from themselves. They are able to translate these sensory impressions into their own sensory awareness, and respond by recreating movement patterns that don’t simply imitate, but play with alternatives. Infants can move and be moved to the extent that they have developed an awareness of themselves as moving. Drawing on the work of psychologist Susan Jones, Hrdy claims that the process of developing this “imitative competency” develops over the first two years of life, as a toddler gains an increased sense of his self and his bodily competencies (Hrdy 2009: 59).

In a view shared by Hrdy and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. It is the capacity that enables humans to move with one another—to empathize with one another—and thus develop a concept of each other as individuals. As a result, my three year old, Leif, will hold a melting ice cream sandwich in his hands for fifteen minutes on the way home for the grocery store, waiting to share it with his older brother, Kai. And Kai would not have received this gift, as Hrdy writes, had human infants not needed to survive and thrive under conditions of cooperative breeding. As Hrdy concludes, “A self-reinforcing evolutionary process produces parents and alloparents who are more sensitive to infantile signals and babies who are better at emitting them” (Hrdy 2009: 220).

It is this ability to connect with one another, Hrdy affirms, that gives rise to a desire for additional forms of communication. “The first social bonds ever forged were between a mother and her offspring” (Hrdy 2009: 41). But once forged, those bonds created in human persons capacities and competencies for connecting with others that they exercised in relation to wider ranges of people—partners, families, friends, and communities—playing with movement patterns to invent modes of communication such as language, art, and religion.

Might this capacity for sensing and responding to patterns of movement, first honed in the relationship between caregiver and infant, be understood as a first form of dance? Might this dance have pulled into existence both a human brain designed to sense and respond to more complex patterns of movement, and a versatile, variable bodily self able to enact them?

Next blog, more clues.