Brain Coaching – “The Dance”

Written By: David Burns

danceIn the “The Clinical Science of Neurologic Rehabilitation”, Bruce Dobkin, a medical neurologist, eloquently describes how we learn through observation and imitation. The passage below which can be found on page 17 of his book beautifully illustrates this learning process. He further suggests, as we have at Brain Centers NW, that the same process that an athlete is engaged in when learning a new “dance” may apply to neurorehabilitation. Brain Centers NW’s brain training program is doing just that.

At Brain Centers NW, Dr. David Burns, is applying known neurological principles of learning and training to both the injured athlete who has suffered a traumatic brain injury like a concussion, as well as to the “healthy” athlete that is pushing their given “dance performance” to another level. Again what we do at Brain Centers NW has nothing to do with “believing” or “buying in” but rather it has to do with taking the time to understand the brain and recognizing that our program is accessing “brain muscle” in a manner that optimizes brain function and consequently sports performance.

“How is she able to observe the choreographer’s actions and immediately reproduce what seem to me like an infinite number of head, torso, arm and leg movements that flow and rapidly evolve with practice? What she sees resonates with her sensorimotor system. She knows a vocabulary of movement from 20 years of studio classes and stage performance. She understands the choreographer’s movements by mapping what she observes onto a sensorimotor representation of each phrase of what she observes. Her ability to imitate is almost automatic. As the choreographer sweeps into action she watches intently. her body winks abbreviated gestures that start to replicate the fuller movement she observes. She is making a direct match between the observation and the execution of a vocabulary of motion. This imitation calls upon mirror neurons that are active with observation of goal-oriented movement. Indeed, the choreographer learns from her. He observes and imitates some of the movement variations that she injects into the dance. He almost unconsciously imitates those added movements, she imitates his. Back and forth they go, building the dance.

Her image of the dance gains an internal representation, engaging the same neural structures for action that were engaged during perception. Standing in a line a the supermarket, stirring a sauce, sitting at the edge of the studio, standing in the wings of the theater just before a performance, her imagery rerepresents the vision and affective components of the dance. Mental practice multiples the number of repetitions of dance movements, extending her physical practice. Cerebral reiteration may prime and facilitate her performance, perhaps not as efficiently as the full movements with their kinesthetic feedback, but good enough for her to be aware that she possesses explicit knowledge of the dance.

She practices during sleep. I know this. I am kicked abruptly in our bed several times a night whenever she is learning a dance or dreams of dance. Stages of sleep may reactivate and consolidate the representation of her movements. Whether asleep or in the moments before she glides onto the stage, she engages her systems of imagery and imitation to practice, soundly building associations among auditory, visual, visuospatial, and sensorimotor nodes of inferior frontal, right anterior parietal, and parietal opercular cortices, linked to the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortices. These networks integrate and command her complex range of tightly bound actions as when she physically performs. The mental steps of the dance gradually disappear from consciousness, replaced by implicit memory, a striatal sequence of breathing releasing with movement phrases of the dance tied to the bars of the music, like an athlete in the zone, like the singer whose lyrics meld into melody, or like the actor expressing words without thinking about the lines of the play.

The choreographer’s actions, the dancer’s focused observation, understanding by mapping and internal representation, imitation, sensorimotor binding, mental and physical practice reactivating neuronal assemblies for phrases of movements, combinations of movements infused with emotion, the performance, the reward of an audience taken by the power struggle and passion of the tango dancers, brava, bravo!

Observation and imagery may serve as no less a prescription for bringing about relearned movements during neurorehabilitation.”

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