Looking into a dancer’s brain

Emily Cross of the School of Psychology and internationally renowned dancer Riley WattsEmily Cross of the School of Psychology and internationally renowned dancer Riley WattsDance and psychology come together at Bangor University this week (14 + 15 February 2012). In an exciting boundary crossing piece of research, Dr. Emily Cross, a psychologist at Bangor University, will be working with internationally renowned contemporary dancer Riley Watts to study what happens in our brains when we watch complex movements.

Cross and Watts are part of the Dance Engaging Science interdisciplinary research project, which seeks to stimulate dialogue, collaboration, and new research ideas between dance professionals and researchers in the cognitive and brain sciences. Cross’s research focuses on how we learn new movement from physical practice compared to observation, and she investigates such questions by observing people’s behaviour and measuring their brain activity with functional MRI scans. Through the Dance Engaging Science project, she has teamed up with Forsythe Company member Riley Watts, a talented young dancer with an interest in questions concerning how dancers learn to reproduce extremely unusual and complex movements. Watts will be joining Cross in her lab at Bangor University to help construct a new set of complex dance stimuli using the Vicon Motion Capture laboratory.

Riley Watts in the motion capture labRiley Watts in the motion capture labSays Cross, “it’s phenomenal to have this opportunity to collaborate with one of the most talented and diverse young dancers working today. The material Riley and I develop will lead to experiments that advance our understanding of how the human brain learns complex movement. In particular, we will be exploring aspects of observational learning, the results of which will inform how educators and therapists can best teach new motor skills to healthy people and those suffering from neurological or physical injury.”

Says Watts, “I am incredibly honoured to be involved in this research with Dr. Emily Cross.  I've been a dancer for seventeen years and I find it thrilling to now have the opportunity to begin understanding dance from the cognitive science angle.  I look forward to playing my part in the discovery of the brain on dance, and to use this knowledge to help understand the bigger picture of what it means to be a cognitive human being.”

Together, Cross and Watts hope this partnership will help illuminate how the brains of experienced and novice dancers, as well as non-dancers, are impacted when their bodies are challenged to move in ways they have never before experienced. Moreover, as their project is only just beginning, both Cross and Watts are excited to find ways to bring their research findings to life for a larger public audience through collaboration with Pontio over the next several months.

Watch the story on BangorTV here

Publication date: 15 February 2012