Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Neuroscientist on the dance floor!


This business of being a columnist is great for many reasons, but I like one in particular: having to write articles every two weeks is the perfect excuse to embark on research that runs parallel to the usual neuroscience subjects in the lab. And so I found myself taking lessons in… ballroom dancing. Neuroscientifically, of course.


Learning to dance is a perfect meal for a neuroscientist on call. It all starts with planning. You have to find a venue, choose a suitable class or private teacher and coordinate the day and time with all your usual activities, which puts the prefrontal cortex to work. Once the day is set, comes the pleasure of anticipation, the anticipation of the reward of spinning to the music.


And then the lessons. Teachers have long known that the brain learns new motor programs gradually, so they teach the steps in stages. The motor cortex works out the new sequence of movements, which has never been used before, orders its execution and begins to adjust it, according to mistakes and successes, with the help of the basal nuclei. Once each sequence has been polished, it’s time to coordinate them into a complete motor program that takes care of the fluid execution of combinations of Sombreros, Coca-Colas and Passeias – to the beat of the music, preferably, if your cerebellum helps. And there’s plenty of cerebellum to keep you on track with so many twirls.


So far, so good. But humming the tune and dancing at the same time takes a while. Until the newly acquired motor programs become automatic and free up the cortex for other matters, I need all the cortical neurons available to supervise my steps. The good thing is that, as I need to concentrate my efforts on my legs, the problems of the outside world stay outside. With more training and music that’s too fast for my cortex to handle, one day I discover that my basal nuclei already know how to string together all the necessary motor programs. My brain has learned to salsa dance!


Ballroom dancing is great. Gyms are cheerful places, full of young and old, all willing to learn new things – and they also offer a complete workout for the brain. By dancing, you can work up a sweat and keep your brain’s stress response healthy; train your memory by learning new steps and names; exercise your social skills by interacting courteously with strangers; and activate the reward system, which guarantees hours of pleasure and fun. And then… it’s time for the dance!

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on February, 2007.

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