As a youngster I was introduced to most of the social graces: piano lessons – which sadly I hated – shooting, horse riding, fencing and ballroom dancing. And I just loved to tango!
Now I learn that it is, perhaps, something that more people should try.
Colleagues from the University of Turin used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the hypothesis that simply focusing attention on walking could modify the activity of specific regions of the brain. But instead of using regular walking they taught people to tango. (The whole paper is available online as a free download.)
If you think about it for a moment, regular walking is an automatic process that you learned as a small child. It involves a series of structure in the deep – subcortical - regions of the brain and the spinal cord. The researchers got their experimental subjects to learn the dance by a combination of physical and mental practice. They were asked to perform the basic steps of the tango followed by imagining that – without moving - they were doing the steps.
The experiment showed that the training was associated with an expansion of regions of the brain involved in imagining movement. After the training the visual imagery gradually gave way to motor and kinesthetic ones.
This makes good sense: we normally begin by visualizing and then over time a motor skill like this becomes automatic. I’ve known good dancers who could flip from one dance to another without a moment’s thought.
This new finding suggests that rehabilitation of people who have lost the ability to walk should involve not just the motor act of walking, but also visualization.
But notice that the two processes – visualization and motor learning are separate. This is another nail in the coffin of the popular idea that your brain cannot tell the difference between a real and an imagined activity.
It also provides further evidence that both mental and physical activities can expand and activate regions of the brain.
And what a fun way to do it!
“The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.”
--Agnes de Mille (American Choreographer, 1905-1993)