The Science of Dance

emily3.jpegDr Emily Cross is a senior lecturer at Bangor University in Wales where she co-directs the Social Brain in Action cognitive neuroscience laboratory. As a trained dancer, she is interested in the remarkable plasticity of the human brain to learn highly-skilled and complex movement, as well as how and why observers derive pleasure from watching certain actions. Emily explains to Soapbox Science co founder Seirian Sumner how your hobby really can be become your research programme!


SS: Hi Emily. Many scientists enjoy indulging in the arts in their spare time, but you’ve been incredibly creative with your career and made your artistry the basis of your science. Tell us how you did this.

EC: My career path can probably best be described as a zigzag bouncing back and forth between the arts and sciences, and to some degree, continues to do so! I absolutely adored science classes as a kid, and was extremely lucky to be taught by a pair of awe-inspiring, super-smart, and fabulously enthusiastic science mavens when I was 10 & 11 years old.  These two women planted a seed of fascination with measuring all sorts of interesting things in the world around us, and I will forever be indebted to them.  A highlight of this time was getting selected two years in a row to take my science fair projects to compete at the state level. In hindsight, my “experiments” were pretty silly and I’m guessing I was selected only because my projects were presented on extremely brightly coloured posters – still, seeing all the interesting ideas being explored by other kids definitely inspired me to want to be like the real scientists who get to spend their days devising and testing real experiments! At the same time, I was dancing seriously, and becoming more involved in school and community theatre productions. Like so many kids, I got bitten by the theatre bug too. So even though I was one of the first set of students in my high school to take advanced placement physics, chemistry and biology, I headed off for university in LA to become a theatre and dance major.

Because of the liberal arts system in the USA, even though I was officially a theatre and dance major for the first 3 (of 4) years as an undergrad, I was also able to take a bunch of classes in psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy, which I really enjoyed. After spending a semester of my 3rd year abroad (dancing and studying Shakespearean drama in London- it was absolutely brilliant), I returned to California and began working as a research assistant in a memory, language and ageing lab in the psychology department, directed by an extremely inspiring woman of science who had taught my favorite class as a first year student. This was the true watershed moment – I absolutely loved it! So I decided several weeks into this position that I needed to change my major to psychology because this, THIS is what I wanted to do for a career.  My first few years in science I spent happily engaged in experimental work looking at word finding difficulties in older adults and how gesture and spoken language interact, and of course also still continued to dance (including some stints in dance companies in New Zealand where I did my MSc, and New Hampshire where I did my PhD).

However, the next big eureka moment came when I was a year into my PhD. In my PhD work, I was studying what’s going on in our brains when we learn simple motor sequences (like different patterns of 5 button presses).  I was also dancing pretty seriously at this time (4-5 evenings a week of 3 hours of class and rehearsal), and when my dance ensemble started learning a really difficult new piece of choreography, I couldn’t help but think that our brains were being hugely impacted by this learning experience (because it was so hard, and we struggled with picking up this new movement vocabulary for some days). I spoke to my PhD advisor about it, and he instantly encouraged to me to design a study to measure how my fellow dancers’ brains were changing as they transitioned from being novices to experts with performing this new movement. This was SUCH an exciting challenge and led to what turned out to be quite an exciting study. What was really awesome about that experience is that it opened up dozens of other avenues for exploring questions about how we learn and perceive complex movements using expert populations such as dancers, and I cannot believe I still get to work on projects that combine my passions for human neuroscience and dance.  It’s incredible!


SS: Have any obstacles stood in the way of you getting to where you are now? How did you overcome them?

EC: As many of the other super-brilliant women have mentioned on this blog, the partner issue can be extremely tricky one, and one that I have encountered as well.  Moving countries so often (California to New Zealand to New Hampshire to Nottingham to Germany to the Netherlands and now Wales!), I found that relationships sadly could not sustain the long distance when I was at an earlier stage in my career. However, I met my partner when we were both postdocs in Nottingham, where I had an extremely brief contract until I began my first longer-term postdoc position in Germany. To cut a long story short, we did not live in the same country (or even the same time zone!) for the first 3 (!) years of our relationship. Wonderfully, though, we both were offered faculty jobs at Bangor University, which has finally enabled us to live in the same country (even the same house!) and work in the same department, an opportunity for which we feel extremely grateful. However, this set up is also not without its challenges. As our research interests are so similar, my partner and I decided to combine forces and co-direct our research laboratory. It is a super stimulating set up, but also an ongoing learning experience, figuring out how to maintain a work-life balance, delegate management tasks effectively between us, and make sure we’re always working toward a mutually beneficial outcome for our research and our students. We still have a lot to learn!!


SS: What has been the most challenging/exciting part of your research?

EC: The answer to this is definitely being able to find innovative ways to use the arts to help me address my more basic, fundamental science questions in my research, and also the myriad opportunities to meet and talk to other scientists and artists who are interested in these links. Something that I fear gets somewhat misunderstood about my work (and the work of some other scientists who also work with the arts) is that, as scientists, we are interested in reducing art to a set of equations or a pattern of neurons firing in the brain OR that we want to understand how our brains help us learn to dance, just for the sake of it. Of course I cannot speak everyone who works with one foot in the arts and the other in science, but for me, the attraction rests with being able to use dance observation and dance learning paradigms as a model system for understanding motor learning and action perception (and not to understand what’s special about dance, per se).  While one small strand of my work is concerned with more artistic elements of the performing arts (such as what’s going on in our brains when we really enjoy watching a particular dance piece, compared to how our brains respond when watching boring dance), the main focus of my work is on fundamental questions of action-perception links at brain and behavioural levels, and it just so turns out that dance is an extremely useful system for investigating these questions.


SS: You’re a performance artist. Soapbox Science is a sort of performance – is this what attracted you to do it?

EC: Yes indeed! Again, speaking about the zigzagging path between arts and sciences, as a long-time dancer and theatre performer, there is something intensely exciting about preparing for and executing a performance in front of others. And as fun as it is to recite a Shakespearean monologue or perform a contorted piece of Twyla Tharp choreography, I have to say there’s something even more energising about talking about the field of cognitive neuroscience, and my research on how our brains link up action with perception to make sense of the world around us. When I heard about Soapbox Science, I thought “ah HA! This is brilliant!” and it sounded like something I would love to do (much like the ‘Dance your PhD” contest!!).   I have to say, though, that each and every gal who was taking to their soapboxes last Friday is every bit as passionate, knowledgable, and enthusiastic about their fields and research, so everyone should come on down to the Southbank next year and get excited and informed about SCIENCE!


Dr Emily Cross talked about: What does it take to Strictly Come Dancing? How our brains learn and perceive complex movement” at last friday’s event. Emily’s participation in Soapbox Science was made possible thanks to sponsorship from L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London. Tweet her @brain_on_dance

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