What happens in the brains of the audience while watching a dance performance? Finnish neuroscience research continues in Canada

Anni Leino, 3.4.2019

Finnish neuroscientist and dancer Hanna Poikonen’s dissertation “Dance on Cortex - ERPs and Phase Synchrony in Dancers and Musicians during a Contemporary Dance Piece” (University of Helsinki) was published in the spring of 2018. In March 2019, Poikonen’s postdoctoral research focuses on the effects of watching dance on the brain. Poikonen's research is internationally pioneering - watching dance has not been studied much from the point of view of neuroscience.

Neuroscientist and dancer Hanna Poikonen, WiseMotion Community | Photo: Aleix Gordo Hostau

“Dance combines so many things – moving, watching, expressing yourself, interaction. I’m interested in finding out how dance affects the brain and how the results differ between professional dancers, musicians and regular audience”, says Hanna Poikonen. In her postdoctoral research, Poikonen utilizes the methods she developed in her doctoral study.

Watching dance is a treat for your brain

The data collection phase of Poikonen’s postdoc study was implemented in March 2019 in McMaster University’s LIVE (Large Interactive Virtual Environment) Lab in Ontario, Canada. LIVELab is a unique 106-seat Research Performance Hall designed to investigate the experience of music, dance, multimedia presentations, and human interaction.

“In LIVELab the research was executed in a theatre space. There were four groups of 15 persons and each group saw a 15-minute live performance from the Spanish Iron Skulls Company”, explains Poikonen. In her former study, professional dancers, musicians and a control group watched dance on video in an EEG laboratory.

“In previous brain research, dance has usually been shown for a few seconds from a video. Based on my doctoral dissertation, I predicted that a live performance in a theatre space and with more time is an experience that will stimulate the brain even more.”

In her doctoral dissertation, Poikonen discovered synchronization in the brain of dance professionals on theta frequency which involves, among other things, perceiving space, handling emotions, memories and social interaction. Through so called kinesthetic empathy we can almost feel the movement we see on the stage in our own bodies. On a brain level, watching a dance performance together with others can increase the feeling of bonding with those around us.

“I hope that the results of my research will widen the understanding of the diverse health benefits of dance. In the future dance could be utilized more, for example in basic education, or as part of health care services,” Poikonen describes.

WiseMotion workshops – from research results to a shared experience

Poikonen created the WiseMotion Community to be able to implement the results of her studies into a shared experience. The workshops led by Poikonen are based on guided improvisation, neuroscientific explanation of the experience, and group conversation. WiseMotion workshops suit for both professional dancers and people with less or without any dance experience.

“WiseMotion approaches dance from the perspectives of well-being, self-knowledge and social interaction, which the results of the research also confirm. I’m interested in lifelong learning, so the workshops are designed in such a way that they are suitable for people of different ages and with different backgrounds.”

In March 2019, Hanna Poikonen visited Toronto where she gave WiseMotion workshops. Later during the spring of 2019 WiseMotion workshops will be organised in Barcelona, Stockholm, Sicily, Hong Kong, New York and Helsinki. In October 2019 Hanna Poikonen’s workshops will be part of Stretch Turku program.