This Is Your Brain on Art

The​ ​Dance​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Scientist

Lennon Hayes


Paul Howard Mason is an anthropologist at Macquarie University in Australia. He has fieldwork experience in ethnomusicology and medical anthropology. His area of expertise includes neuroanthropology, dance anthropology, and the anthropology of martial arts. In his article, “Brain, Dance and Culture: The choreographer, the dancing scientist and interdisciplinary collaboration” he draws on his experience in these fields and makes the argument that dance provides a unique area of interest for anthropology.

Dance​ ​in​ ​Relation​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Brain,​ ​Culture,​ ​and​ ​Environment

Dance is shaped by culture and gives researchers an insight into how people perceive and interpret the world around them by the way they express themselves through dance. Dance is influenced by the embodied brain, culture, and the environment. These three categories overlap among themselves as well. These influences shape how the dancers speak to one another and how they begin to move from improvisation to choreography and finally to performance. Mason chooses a definition of culture from anthropologist Derek Freeman which says culture is made up of alternatives that are socially sanctioned and selected for out of all the possibilities in human variation. Mason says that choreography shows this definition of culture in a small time frame as researchers will be able to see the process of selection. Choreography comes from perception, symbols, and meanings. Researchers will be able to see complexity increasing as they observe the dancers in the studio.

First Lady Michelle Obama joins children for a Super Sprowtz show, a “Let’s Move!” event at La Petite Academy child care center in Bowie, Md., Feb. 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Dance​ ​as​ ​Play

Play is a vital part of development and learning. The higher cerebral centres of the brain and the limbic system are involved in play. The limbic system is related to imagination and decision-making as well as emotions. This system that contributes to play also contributes to behaviors that are driven by emotion. This makes sense as dance is very often seen as fueled by emotion and being very emotionally impactful for dancers and viewers alike. Play helps individuals learn how to behave in their environment and with those around them. In the context of great socio cultural influence, play begins to create shared meanings and behavior. Mason says that play will then no longer be just for those involved in play but also those watching. This can be seen in the choreography of dance. Choreography shapes play behavior from improvisation with the influence of the brain, culture, and the environment. Dance thus gives researchers a way of seeing how these three categories interact and the influence they have on humans’ behavior.

Evolution​ ​and​ ​Dance

Mason states that these five processes contribute to evolution: variation, selection, complexity, organisation, and memorisation. They can be seen in relation to dance as they act on how a dance is formed. There are limitless possibilities in improvisation which accounts for the variation. Improvisation is then refined down into choreography, this is the aspect of selection. Complexity is, I believe, the dancers and the choreographers individual opinions and the way they believe the dance should be done. This information is then organized into the choreography for the performance and then the dancers must memorize it.

How​ ​to​ ​be​ ​Interdisciplinary​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Methods​ ​Involved

Mason suggests that scientists engage in fieldplay. That they should engage with the possibilities of dance and dancers should engage with science. What this would look like I am not entirely sure I know. This would allow for these concepts to be embodied and for the barrier between these two fields to be broken down. To truly study dance, the scientist must be engaged and dance itself is based in movement. The knowledge found in dance is in movement, which means one should be involved in order to have a better understanding. As one learned the movement necessary for contemporary dance, they can see their perception change. Mason refers to dance as the object and means of investigation. Creating choreography is distributed throughout the dancers, so the researcher must be involved as well. Choreography gives insight into social organization and the way humans express themselves.

How​ ​It​ ​Relates

This article dealt with embodiment in reference to dance and choreography. Embodiment has been talked about in class and it makes sense that it would apply to dance. A researcher can begin to embody dance while doing fieldplay giving them a better understanding and insight to the process. Emotions and the limbic system also come into play in this article. Dance is often highly related to emotions and creates strong feelings in those that are involved. It would be interesting to see how different forms of dance relate to different emotions. Just two weeks ago we spoke about physical activity in humans. This article on dance was reminiscent of the discussion on capoeira and how culture interacts with biological systems. Different forms of dance could also likely influence the vestibular system.

My​ ​Thoughts

I enjoyed this article. I am not a dancer myself so I do not have any first-hand experience that I can relate to the article. The evolutionary systems and dance was interesting. The connection to me was kind of difficult to see. I had to think about it for a while in order to grasp it. I had never really thought about dance in such a way before. I enjoy the idea of “the dancing scientist” and researchers participating in this way. It is a bit humorous to picture but it makes sense. Dance is all about movement and the best way to understand is to participate and understand that feeling. The section where Mason talked about dancers playing with the depths of science was something I would like to understand a bit more as I am not sure how that would be done entirely.


Born For Art

Rob Else


Colwyn Trevarthen, born 1931, is a professor emeritus of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh. Among other things, he has studied psychobiology and developmental brain science of expressive movement, human intersubjectivity and cultural learning, chronobiology and “musicality” of human action and applications in development, education, therapy, and art.

A mother playing with her baby (from
An Inborn Proclivity

Trevarthen makes a case for the human propensity for art and fiction as being ingrained in us from birth, and important components of how humans are uniquely adapted when it comes to learning, using, and being shaped by culture. To support this assertion, he uses a number of converging lines of evidence from a variety of different disciplines. First, he notes that Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not have any kind of artistic creations, like art or music, yet Homo sapiens sapiens had a rich history of these aesthetic pursuits. Second, humans are unique among other primates in our abilities of tone and rhythm, which even infants are able to display. Trevarthen calls this “communicative musicality,” and in previous work demonstrated that infant communication has “pulse,” affective “quality,” and a temporal narrative component. Third, human biology is fluid, rather than fixed, in the way that it develops, which Trevarthen suggests is a critical component of the connections that infants make with caregivers. He draws on the concept of epigenetics to show that even our DNA can be shaped in these early formative years, with great impacts later in life. Fourth, humans display a capacity for episodic memory unlike like found in any other animals, which is a key component of storytelling. Finally, Trevarthen draws on neuroanthropological literature that claims that the way that our brain develops in infancy is linked to processes of meaning making and social development.

How It Relates

One of these concepts that Trevarthen brings up, that of communication and play between mother and infant, relates to other readings we did regarding primate cognition, play, and learning. One main concern of ours in class was that we questioned whether we could be certain that non-human primates weren’t communication in similar ways with their babies, just in a manner that we as humans couldn’t pick up on. Further, Trevarthen’s work is similar to that of DeCaro who demonstrates a link between parental attention and well-being among young students.

My Thoughts

Overall, I thought that Trevarthen did not do a good job of structuring an argument for the inborn propensity of humans for art and fiction. While all the pieces are potentially there, he doesn’t discuss art or fiction again in any meaningful way after the first section of the article. It was also rather evident that Trevarthen comes from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and there is some problematic use of gender dynamics throughout the piece. From an anthropological point of view, it would be interesting to do observational work in a number of different cultures with infants as well, or draw upon existing literature, to discuss the relationships that mothers in different cultural settings have with their infants that may or may not promote artistry and fiction.


Questions​ ​to​ ​Ponder

1. Are there other interdisciplinary studies that would benefit from what Mason calls fieldplay? What do you think of the concept? As well as the idea that even a lifetime is not enough time?

2. In the article, there is a quote from John Blacking about how we understand the minds of non-human animals by observing their movements and non-verbal communication. It then says that humans can be understood in the same way. What are your thoughts on that? Can you think of situations outside of dance that this is applicable and vital to understand?

3. What did you think about the idea of evolutionary systems and how they relate to dance? Do you see what Mason is trying to convey?

4. How does Trevarthen’s work relate to play theory?

5. How would you design a neuroanthropological study to provide further evidence for Trevarthen’s claims?

10 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Art”

  1. To answer your question about the quote from John Blacking, I agree and disagree. I do and don’t think that human minds could be understood through the observation of movement and non-verbal communication. I think that what makes humans different than non-humans is our intention. For example, someone dancing with a lot of vigor and energy could be perceived to be loving the activity they are engaged in. A bystander could believe that this individual’s mind is enjoying dancing. However, on the other hand, the individual dancing may or may not be enjoying the activity. May this person is just performing because he or she must perform well in order to get a scholarship to attend school? Maybe he or she is performing well to impress his or her parents because they look up to them. Another example involves posture and body language. An individual with a closed frame with their arms wrapped around their bodies may give off the idea that he or she is uninterested when in reality he or she may just be cold. It may be easier to understand a non-humans mind via the behavior but when it comes to humans, intentions and our socialized brains add much more confusion to the mix.

  2. Rob’s mention of a cross-cultural study of mother-child bonds made me think about the documentary Babies that I brought up in class a few weeks ago. As a reminder, the film traces the first two years of life for children growing up in four different cultural contexts. Something that I actually really enjoyed about this film was that there was no narration so it is completely up to the viewer to interpret the different situations. I remember it being very striking to see just how differently the caretakers varied in everything from proximity to the actual interactions with the infants. For this reason, I agree that an anthropological study specifically looking at artistry and fiction would be very interesting.

  3. I think the second question is really interesting and it is something discussed a lot in philosophy. It doesn’t particularly relate to the article topic, but this brings to mind the ethical topic of whether or not animals suffer. People attribute suffering to animals and believe them to feel pain because they present analogous actions that humans do when they feel pain. The logic is: An animal feels pain if it exhibits painlike behavior. Like Monika said, I think this can be tricky because just like the dancer example, an animal could possibly experience painlike behavior even when no affective component is present. Martha J. Farrah suggests that behaviors are only contingently connected to mental states. Many different mental states can produce the same behavior, which is also related to Monkia’s second example.

    1. So as I think about this question more I become more unsure with respect to the part about animal behavior portraying their mind. I read in physical anthropology that some non-human primates, I think they were macaques maybe, they trick each other. For example, they will scream as if there is a predator around but they do that only to facilitate copulation. So to some extent that seems like theory of mind to me. They are aware that there is no danger in sight but they scream knowing that others will think there is danger and disperse. However, contradictory to that, the same non-human primates are unable to detect any other signs of danger besides seeing it. For example, they see foot prints of dangerous animals or a carcass in a tree and don’t think that danger is near. That leads me to believe that their theory of mind is not fully developed. The first part, however, is a concrete example of how we know some behaviors of animals provide insight into their minds.

    2. I enjoyed the discussion on whether or not art was something unique to the human species. I read up more on the Bowerbirds and I think the most interesting thing was that the display building doesn’t appear to be innate to the bird. Young birds have to learn by observing the behavior in older birds and through trial and error. The birds are also known to go through “changes of mind” where they backtrack on work they’ve already done and make adjustments. I think something to consider for the question of whether or not this is considered creativity is to observe the young’s nests compared to the parent or older bird’s. How much variation is there? If the young’s nest differ from the birds they’re learning from, then this seems to point to novelty or creativeness. The only thing that keeps me from this conclusion is that it feels strange to think of art being done for survival. Creativity seems like something that typically doesn’t need to be done out of necessity.

  4. Regarding the first question about field play and the researcher becoming the dancer, I think the role of participant observation really depends on the research that you are trying to do. If you’re wanting a more scientific study with lots of numbers and quantitative data, then learning the very basics of dance (for example) would be helpful in providing background knowledge to your research but an extensive knowledge may distract from the actual research you should be doing. However, if your goal is to write an ethnography about dance in a particular culture then a more extensive knowledge of the dance and an increased amount of participant observation would be necessary in being able to write about the cultural practice. While I was reading the Mason article I was thinking that the article had more of an ethnographic feel to it than some of the other more neuroscience heavy articles that we’ve read so far in this class. So in his work I think that learning as much as he did about dance and choreography was essential to writing the paper that he did.

  5. I’ve touched on these things before, but I think the developmental value of art is incredibly undervalued. I’m therefore very glad to see concepts like “field play” emerging. As the blog states, however, I do wish there were more connections towards evidence of artistic predisposition. While I can’t speak on being predisposed, I can speak on creativity having interesting implications with neuroscience. In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb and Dr. Allen Braun conducted a study on improvisational jazz musicians, to see what part of their brain would activate, and again with freestyle rap artists in (I believe) 2010. What they found was that during improvisational sessions, both groups used the medial-prefrontal cortex, thought to “govern self-expression”, primarily. This was different from the condition of a recitation, which activated more regulatory/memory-based structures in the brain. So I wonder what this study means in terms of creativity being hard-wired into people, and when it’s activated.

  6. I’ve been thinking more about whether or not animals can have creative enterprise. I haven’t come any closer to a conclusion than we got in class. I still find it an interesting topic to consider when I have nothing better to do. I would like to think that animals are ‘smart’ and are able to create pieces of art but that would require a solid definition of what art is and who am I to judge? While I am not artistically gifted, I still think that art and the study of art is important in our society.

  7. I enjoyed leading this class and having everyone’s thoughts on “what is art?” There is so much variety and differing understandings that it is truly a never ending discussion. I personally believe the Bower birds show some kind of preference which to me translate to art. Maybe this is a little bit of a laughable idea but I think animals’ work should be seen just as much as art as humans’ work.

  8. Similar to others, one of my favorite discussions from this particular class was what counts as “art.” I personally feel that the bowerbirds are creating “art” when they make their elaborate displays. I do think there is value in the evolutionary analysis which would consider how creating “art” makes one attractive to others because of all of the positive attributes it can display (e.g., resource acquisition, creativity, intelligence, ability to concentrate on a task, etc.). Therefore, if a bowerbird’s nest is seen as attractive to fellow bowerbirds, I think it would qualify as “art.”

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