Thursday, April 02, 2020

Your brain on ballet

A few months ago I attended the lecture-performance "Dancing and the Brain" at Nationale Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam. I thought it was really cool to discuss how dancing affects our brain, and join lecture with dance demonstrations. Inspired by the lecture, here is my version of dancing and the brain, with an emphasis on ballet, the form of dance with which I have most personal experience.
Cortical representations of hand and foot in Meier et al (2016)

To understand how dancing affects the brain, we need to start with discussing what dancing really is in general, and then how ballet differs from that. In general, dancing can be defined as a combination of movement, often with music, often in the service of artistic expression and conveying a certain aesthetic experience (but sometimes also a social action). As such, dancing inevitably is a training of motor coordination, which is requires coordination between many brain areas, including the parietal and premotor cortex (Cross et al., 2009). Each type of dance has a specific movement vocabulary, and when dancers watch their "own" type of dance, their ventral premotor cortex gets more active than when they watch other forms of dance (Pilgramm et al., 2010). This suggests that dancing helps to set up specific motor programs (for example, in ballet dancers it has been shown that the area of motor cortex associated with the foot has increased; Meier et al., 2016). Dance has also been shown to be associated with more sensitivity in the recognition of other's movements (Sevdalis & Keller, 2009).
In my home office

Now let's move on to the specific form of dance that is ballet. What is unique about ballet is that it consists of a very specific movement vocabulary that has changed little over the centuries. A strong emphasis is placed on the lines created by poses and movements. As such, I would expect that this is associated by a very strong sensitivity to small differences in the production and perceptions of these patterns of movement. A lot of this sensitivity is visual because ballet dancers perfect their movements largely with the help of mirrors. This is probably different in many other forms of dance that do not rely so strongly on mirrors. Moreover, because ballet involves the precise repetition of a relatively fixed movement vocabulary, this is associated with increased ability to memorize movement sequences (Smyth & Pendleton, 1994). This often happens by chunking a series of movements into bite-size pieces, which ballet dancers have been shown to be relatively good at Foley et al. 1991 . I am very curious whether this also transfer to better memory in general. I would not be surprised if ballet were a good training method for memory and cognitive control (see also van Vugt (2014) for similar ideas).

Apart from training memory and cognitive control, ballet is likely to be also excellent training for your attention. When you are in the studio, you need to focus on many pieces of information at the same time: the series of movements you are supposed to produce, the muscles you are supposed to be tensing and relaxing (while dancers have been training for years to automatize those patterns, they keep honing them every single day of their careers).
During an EEG experiment at the Night of Arts & Sciences, 2019

Apart from those technical aspects, ballet is most importantly an art, so the best part for a dancer usually comes when they can forget about the steps and totally inhabit the character or the mood that comes with the dance. They then typically forget everything around them and enter something like a flow state. I would not be surprised if ballet dancers are very good at imagination, but I have not found any studies that test that. I would predict this would lead to a strengthening of a set of brain areas called the default mode network, involving the posterior cingular cortex, medial prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe, which are all involved in creating stories in your mind, and disconnecting from outside distraction. While there have been
claims that ballet improves creative thinking, i am not so sure about that, and I think this is mostly true for those dancers who have specialized in improvisation (indeed, all the dancers in this study did, including some ballet dancers).

But ballet is not typically something you only do by yourself. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about ballet is when the corps the ballet moves in perfect synchrony, such as the entry of the shades in La Bayadere. To make this happen, dancers need to be highly aware of the dancers that are in front of them, to the side, and behind them. In fact, they are even told to breathe together. As such, I would strongly suspect that not only their bodies synchronize, but even their brains synchronize (here is a video where I talk about inter-brain synchrony in dancers.

A final unique aspect of ballet is the extreme balance expertise required, Women even balance on the tips of their toes! Recent research has shown that dancers are better at balancing than non-dancers (Burzynska et al., 2017). Such balancing expertise was associated with changes in dancers' hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus (thought to be crucial for orientation in space), insula (thought to be important for feeling sensations inside your body)Dordevic et al., 2018).
Brain areas larger in ballet dancers than in controls (from Dordevic et al., 2018)
, and cingulate motor cortex (

In summary, dance, and in particular ballet, is great for lots of things. Indeed, I found that in the last few weeks, when I was stuck at home due to the covid-19 situation, ballet was really my outlet and saving grace. The good news is that dance in general, and ballet in specific is nowadays also used in interventions for diseases such as Parkinsons (read more here). It has also been found that people who have been dancing their whole life tend to suffer less from dementia and age-related cognitive decline (Verghese et al., 2003). So, keep dancing!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A sticky virus

Just like the rest of the world, my life in the last few weeks has been turned around by the virus. What stunned me was how sticky the thoughts about the virus are (quite "viral" in fact). I do a lot of research into sticky thinking--thoughts that keep creeping into our minds that make it really difficult to focus. We have shown that when people are distracted by thoughts that they find difficult to let go of leads to substantial drops in task performance and increases in the variability of response times. More recently, we also showed that such "sticky thinking" was associated with reduced pupil responses to incoming stimuli. In essence, we think this means that your mind decouples from the environment. So, no wonder that a lot of people find it difficult to concentrate in this time of covid-19.

Another way I "unstick" myself is through dancing. Here you can see me in India.

Quite fittingly, these days I am working with the slogan from the #lojongchallenge that says: "If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained." This is the perfect time to test how we practice when being distracted. In a way, the current situation with all its uncertainty is probably not unlike what is called the "bardo" in Tibetan Buddhism. The bardo is the period between dying and the subsequent rebirth--it is a period where nothing is certain and everything can change. And such situations tend to evoke a lot of anxiety--a very "effective" sticky thought. Of course this can be quite adaptive, because in uncertain situations there can be danger, and then you need to be alert about that. However, if there is nothing you can do in such a situation, then this sticky thinking does not really help and leads to a lot of stress and anxiety. For this reason, I find that in the last weeks, practices of loving kindness and compassion are helpful. They lead me to focus not on myself, but on other people, and get me out of the stickiness. Moreover, they give me energy by making me feel that I can do something useful for the world in this uncertain situation. And such practices can be very simple: repeating silently "may you be happy, may you be safe, may you live with ease" is all that is needed for loving kindness. See this page for some nice examples and further explanation. Because if we can practice loving kindness and compassion in this situation, then we are not only well-trained, but probably a lot more resilient as well.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Contemplating sustainable happiness in Vienna

I decided to contemplate the next slogan--"always maintain only a joyful mind" during a trip to Vienna. Now you might say: that is really easy: Vienna is a gorgeous city, so it's no challenge to be happy. This is certainly true. However, it was not that trivial. I went there for work: to discuss the future of Mind and Life Europe. Mind and Life is an organization that grew out of a series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists. So how does work relate to maintaining a joyful mind?

Let's first unpack the slogan. Maintaining only a joyful mind does not mean that you always need to be smiling and ignore all the sadness and difficulty that is abound in life. It does mean that you do not completely wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. After all, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, when there is something to solve a problem, do it, and when there is nothing you can do, it does not help to feel sad about it either. So this attitude of maintaining a joyful mind is the mind that considers everything as workable. Usually this attitude makes even difficult things easier. I got to practise this today on my flight back from Vienna. The flight was kept on an indefinite hold because of stormy weather in Amsterdam. Thankfully enough, my mind actually was quite OK throughout it all. It's not actually that bad to hang out at the airport if you just focus on the moment (and happily plough through the infinite amount of work that is always present). And as I am writing this, I am sitting on the plane, which now has gotten a delayed departure time after all.

Nevertheless, the more important dimension of maintaining a joyful mind became clear to me over the course of the meeting. We were reflecting on what makes Mind and Life events so special. I felt that a crucial ingredient is that it connects us to a dimension of life that we find deeply meaningful. While eating a Sachertorte, which we also did during the meeting, is lovely, this pleasure is only very temporary. In contrast, when you are engaging into work that puts into practice your deepest human values (which for a Buddhist practitioner is mostly cultivating compassion for all living beings, as well as wisdom), this feels very gratifying. When my academic work aligns with these values, in which wisdom may be operationalized as simply learning more about the nature of the human mind, and compassion as doing research that matters and brings benefit to beings, or teaching that gives insight and knowledge to others, then I feel happy for a much longer time. Moreover, by breaking down the boundaries between work and spiritual practice, there is less of a feeling of stress because work becomes just another way to engage in spiritual practice, rather than a competitor for our time. In this way, I think figuring out a way to align one's work to true human values is a way to "always maintain a joyful mind", and also a recipe against burnout.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Finding your own vision for yourself

I like this image because it shows one quality that I find very important  to cultivate: caring for others. (this was  holding a little baby goat on the way to Ladakh)
In this blog I will discuss my facorite Lojong slogan, which is "of all witnesses, rely on the principal one." This refers to not going by other's judgments of you, but sticking to your own compass. It is obviously critical to do this, because otherwise it is the recipe for unhappiness. People will never always like you, especially when you are trying to go against some societal conventions or have some controversial ideas.

One reason I like this slogan a lot is that I really have to work a lot on this one. I tend to be a people-pleaser, and find it challenging to ignore what people think of me. One example is a class I have been teaching, which consists of very critical and quite negative and judgmental students. I noticed I started to worry more and more about what they were thinking and get really scared of doing something wrong. (I read the student evaluations last week, and while they were commenting that the course was not well organized, and that the book was crap, they also wrote that I was knowledgeable and sweet).

Mountains always remind me to keep an overarching vision
Interestingly, this past week I read an amazing alternative perspective of one person nominated as a Teacher of the Year at my university, who said: I really appreciate it when students take the time to tell me I am doing something wrong. Because when you know you do something wrong, you can learn, otherwise you can never change. And as long as you know you have done your best, that is all you can do.

A last point to keep in mind in relying on the principal witness is that it is very important to define your own vision for yourself, and your own goals. Alessia Lugoboni did a very nice video on this, in which she talked about how we often get stuck in life because we don't think enough about why we do what we do. It is important to not just go with everything that happens and get lost in the crazy rat race of daily nitty gritty, but always have an overarching vision about where you want to go. I wrote down several goals at the start of this year, and it is very inspiring to keep reviewing these every few weeks to see how I am doing. Only then can you be slowly change and develop according to whatever vision you have for yourself--not when you are relying on the small-mindedness of what other people think of you. With Tibetan new year around the corner, this is another chance for me to go back to my goals. Do you want to join me?

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Reflections on the new year and self-importance

Sometimes it is good to go back to the essence, and interestingly, the next slogan in the #lojongchallenge does just that: slogan 19 says that "All Dharma agrees at one point, and that one point is to reduce self-importance." Dharma refers to the Buddhist teachings. In other words: the whole point of the Buddhist teachings is to reduce our sense of self-importance.

I think this is such an important slogan because it helps us to keep checking whether we are still on the path, or whether instead we have succumbed to spiritual materialism, in which we use the spiritual path only to be more successful and more praised. I think that many cases where spiritual masters go off may be linked to forgetting this slogan. Of course it also is really difficult to keep reducing your self-importance if people constantly treat you as being very important, very wise and very amazing. It is all the more amazing that there are still some spiritual teachers keep a very low sense of self-importance, in which they treat even the most simple people with the utmost respect. I find that particularly inspiring because I know for myself how attractive it is to feel yourself better than others.

One particular way in which we tend to assert our self-importance is through social media. While I do not think social media are unequivocally bad, one thing they tend to be very effective at is creating groups that amplify there extremeness, and thereby become more and more polarized. If we don't feel better than others ourselves, we may still feel our group is better than the others--whether it be a political, religious, social or some other group. My aim for 2020 is to refrain from feeling myself better than others and instead to cultivate enough self-confidence that I do not need to be better than others.

Finally, this slogan also has an environmental interpretation. I think 2019 has been the year in which the world woke up to the reality of climate change and the need to do something to deal with that. If you consider yourself a bit less important, and the world and environment a bit more important, then it may be easier to undergo the minor discomforts of eating less meat, using more bicycles and public transportation, buying less, using less water and electricity... A good blog with practical advice is this one. Happy new year!