The Human Brain is Hardwired for Song and Dance.

Two girls performing traditional song and dance

The Human Brain is Hardwired for Song and Dance.

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Neuroscientists Eric Jarvis and Constantina Theofanopoulo Talk Song and Dance.

As part of our Song and Dance Program, CPI Interviewed two neuroscientists whose work demonstrates that our brains are hardwired for song and dance.  Here are some excerpts from that interview, particularly relevant to CPI’s work with children.

By Late Childhood, we Develop the Abilities Underlying Song & Dance.

ChildsPlay International (CPI): The human brain takes years to mature. If, as you state, we are hardwired to sing and dance, at what age is this capacity fully expressed? Can children as young as four or five learn to sing complex melodies and execute complex dance steps?

Constantina Theofanopoulo (CT): Now, there is solid research on this topic. So, there was a very recent article that was published in Developmental Psychology. They tested children starting from four years old. . . and then at the same time in the same children and in adolescents they tested how their phonological processing and production was developing. What they found was that if you give a child a song that has a specific rhythm, and then you tell this child “Okay, play this rhythm by yourself for the next x seconds, and try to maintain this specific rhythm” that the ability develops and gets to what we would call an adult-like state in late childhood, mainly 10 or even 12 years old. They were developing until late childhood. This ability for a beat processing as well as phonological abilities — very basic abilities — underlie singing and dancing. 

We are song and dance-ready. As soon as we are put in an environment that gives us the stimuli, we can develop this ability.

Prof. Constantina Theofanopoulo

The Human Brains is Hardwired to Bring in New Information in Ways Other Species Can’t.

Erich Jarvis (EJ): It’s like it we’re hardwired to learn how to do something. Not all species can learn how to do some things. In this case, we learn sounds and dancing to sound. So, our brain is hardwired to have that ability. But then the actual information you learn and the actual dance moves that you learned are not innate.

CT: So, it’s readying your brain in a hardwired way to bring in new information in ways that other species can’t. And it gets better over development. We are song and dance ready. As soon as we are put in the environment that gives us the stimuli, we can develop this ability.

“Trauma at an early age will lead to long lasting impacts, but you can also repair trauma. It’s easier at an early age .”

Erich Jarvis

Traumatized Kids can Recover their Abilities to Sing and Dance.

CPI: It’s relevant to what CPI does. We’re hardwired and, at CPI, we put kids in an environment so that they can learn. So, we’re wired with the ability to learn, not with the ability to sing and dance per se. That’s an important distinction.  It supports what we do as CPI. 

CPI Cont’d: Many of the kids that CPI serves have experienced and may still experience serious trauma. Does this delay or inhibit their development of a capacity to sing and dance? Can this capacity be recovered once they have the capacity for creative play?

EJ: Interesting. I’m not quite sure the answers are known, but I can think of a broader understanding of neuroscience that trauma is going to affect many circuits in the brain, whether it’s speech, dancing, reading, or simply just imagination. And so, what I would say is that trauma at an early age will lead to long-lasting impact, but you can also repair trauma. It’s easier at an early age than at a later age. So, if you’re going to have some interventions, then given the way the brain works, it’s more repairable at an early age than any at an older age.

CPI: Also, that underscores what we do, because we attempt to address this trauma by offering the kids opportunities to play. This draws out their natural ability to learn, that becomes a kind of circuit that’s very interesting.

Boys embracing during a

CPI “Olympics”.

Song and Dance with Others Offers Great Healing.

EJ: I would literally go one step further. There is a lot of evidence that when people are doing things like singing in synchrony – together — that’s more healing than if you’re just doing something by yourself. 

CPI: Why is that? Do you think something rubs off on somebody else? 

EJ: I think it has something to do with social interactions. Speaking like we’re doing now is a social interaction. Molecules in the brain like oxytocin and dopamine influence those social interactions. But my guess is that it’s nourishing these brain areas with oxytocin and dopamine when you do things like singing and dancing in a synchronous way with others.

CPI: So, what I draw from this is that a social activity, like singing or dancing with young traumatized children, can help them recover from the trauma better than if we just took that traumatized kid, sat him in a chair by himself and said, “Okay, sing and dance.” That’s very interesting because, again, we bring kids together. They reinforce each other. But what you’re saying is that this reinforcement goes very deep in terms of the way the brain functions. 

Early Training Helps To Develop Musical Talent.

CPI: Does training from a young age help develop the neural connections that lead to talent? So, if you get them early enough, the brain is still developing. Does that make a difference? 

EJ: Yes. I will just say that the earlier, the better. The reason behind that is that we go through critical periods for all kinds of behaviors, not just for speech and singing. Many people don’t realize that, but different brain circuits are on different timing. So, it’s not like the entire brain is going under a critical period of development where you learn best at an early age than you do later in life. Equally for all kinds of behaviors. And we see in the brains of songbirds, developmental changes of those upper down-regulated genes I told you about in different parts of that brain circuit.

EJ Cont’d: They are down-regulated at different times, for production of sounds, for learning of the sounds, and so forth. So, there are certain genes, including the sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, that make the neuronal connections more salt stable, so that they will last throughout life. 

And why is that the case? It’s easier if your brain is in a state where it can change a lot depending on what you learn. You learned something new, but you forget something as well. And this is why there is childhood amnesia, because you need to balance learning a lot of information fast for survival, learning how to eat, walk, and so forth. But since your brain is changing so much, you’re going to forget. Alright, then the sex hormones crystallize your brain circuits when you go through puberty, such that you now learned everything you need to learn to survive.

We Naturally Enjoy Song And Dance, And These Traits Are Good For Us!

CPI: Is having the hardwired ability to sing and dance relevant to the desire to sing and dance? Is it relevant to enjoying the act of singing and dancing?

EJ: I think our answer would be similar to what we said about “do you like to sing when you’re walking down the street?” We just know from personal experience that most of us who dance get pleasure out of this. But I think we can link it to the survival function I was talking about earlier, because when this happens, the act of speaking is associated with dopamine release. Many call it the feel-good drug. And we think it might be associated with oxytocin release, for social bonding and so forth. So, I think the pleasure of this is not something just coincidental. It’s not just that humans do this, because simply, they’d like it. Something evolved for us to like it because it’s a good trait to have — both singing and dancing.

Train People Slowly At First, Then Pick Up The Pace.

CPI: What are the best ways to train a child to carry a tune, put words to it, and dance to a complex even changeable beat? Can they learn on their own by listening, or does instruction help them to learn?

EJ: I’m not sure how well we know the answer to that. You have plenty of people out there, like music trainers, who have some training mechanism they picked up that’s been tested over many years. But few people do a scientific study.  I would say based upon just some studies that I know about people with speech disorders, you train somebody to do something slowly at first, then pick it up as it’s easier to do it faster. It’s thought that sensory motor integration requires some time, sensory being the auditory pathway, motor being the voice of the body if you’re dancing. 

CT: Sometimes in the way that we speak, or even the way we make decisions about what to learn — dance, singing, etc. — we don’t realize the distinction between formal and informal training. At home, we have informal training for singing and dancing, and it is more so if we are come from artistic families. Now we have so much stimulation from television, from the internet. So, we not only take formal training to learn how to sing and how to dance, but we get informal training from the time we are born. I think that formal training can shape good parameters on how these behaviors can develop in a way that has been shown — at least empirically — for some of these behaviors. We get a lot of informal training and this we should not minimized.

Because Of Technology, We Are Moving Towards Informal Training, But. . . 

CPI: Do you think we’re moving in a direction towards more informal training with everything that’s available on YouTube and every other social media platform? And, therefore, will it become more widespread and available, and not just available to a smaller cohort that can go to the High School Performing Arts?

EJ: This is hybrid training. There’s stuff you get online. My grandmother taught me herself to play the piano, and put a little strip along the piano keys for letters. Now people don’t need a grandmother to do that. They just do a search on Google. My son learned how to play guitar just by doing that. And he’s good at it. I would call this hybrid. There’s Software. It’s a type of training, just that there’s not a person on the other side. This model is changing people’s abilities and skill sets because may find some good tools online. More people can have access to that kind of training than before when you had to pay for a trainer.

Online Training Eliminates Necessary Feedback.

CT: One thing that makes online training different is that you don’t get feedback on what you’re doing. There is not this live interaction with the other person that can help you and tell you you’re doing this exact thing wrong. I was trying to learn Spanish using Duolingo. It was one of the apps for that, and Rosetta Stone is another. Most programs yet don’t give feedback. Some do. And they get better. I’m sure that dance training, song training, playing instruments will becomes more democratic. You know, many people can do it around the world wherever they are. If they have movement disabilities, if they live in a place that’s remote where dance academies don’t exist, they can do it. 

CPI: So that can get “dumbed down” a little because they don’t get this feedback. And if it’s democratized in the sense that it becomes more available, but it may be less challenging.

Engaging With A Screen Should “Percolate” Down To Social Activity.

CT: I’m saying it only in the sense if it becomes more available, not less challenging, because there could be Zoom trainings, dance class via Zoom, such as the ones that we were doing during the pandemic, that has some has some fun. But at the same time, young children should be aware of how being engaged a lot with a screen, with a mobile phone, should percolate down to other aspects of life such as socialization, making friends, eating habits. So, if you’re eating in front of a screen, not just being mindful to when you’re eating alone. I think that it is more of the kinds of views that we can give to learning a choreography from Tik Tok, or just some online training. It is the kind of use that, from my own perspective, nothing can beat a live dance class. And it would be the thing that study: which are the oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin levels after a Zoom class with many people versus a class, a live class in the in the studio. 

These are still questions that we need to ask. When you get it from Tik-Tok or Zoom, you’re doing it alone, as opposed to being involved with a group just for your own general interest. 

Read our blog on “The Neuroscience of Song and Dance.

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