I recently watched a film documentary, First Position, which is about the world’s largest international student dance competition, called Youth America Grand Prix. The film follows six young ballet dancers in their journey leading up to and during the dance competition. I don’t really know why I decided to watch the film, as I don’t dance, and I certainly don’t twirl and plié, but I was completely captivated by the dancers in the film from the very beginning. Not only do I not know why I decided to watch the film in the first place (which is a different topic to look into), but I also have no idea why I was so intrigued and raptured by something that I am completely unknowledgeable about… it was a different feeling from going to a classical music concert, and then wanting to pick up my violin and practice in an attempt to play as beautifully as the musicians on stage, for in that case, I can actually play the violin. Rather, the dancers just inspired me “in general,” which is confusing because, like I said earlier, I don’t dance (although, like every other little girl in my hometown, I went to ballet class for a couple of years when I was in grade school). I decided to do some research into why we can be inspired by something that we have no background in ourselves, using dance as an example.
I found a study that analyzed the aesthetic experience of watching dance, which is a unique topic within the field of neuroaesthetics. In the realm of dance, the process of creating movements in the form of dance is the artwork, whereas most neuroaesthetic studies deal with the aesthetic pleasure of viewing the end product (e.g. of a painting). Researchers have found that there is a particular neural circuit that responds when we watch other people move, called the “action observation network” (Cross, Kirsch, Ticini, & Schutz-Bosbach, 2011). This network is comprised of the following brain regions: premotor, parietal, and occipitotemporal cortices. When and why exactly do these brain regions activate? The network is active when we see other peoples’ bodies in motion, and is used to understand the intentions behind others’ actions as well as their possible motives and goals. Relatively unsurprisingly, our own experiences shape how we perceive other peoples’ intentions. For example, my experience (or lack of experience) and background in dance will somehow guide my perceptions when viewing dancers’ movements. The main idea behind the Cross et al. (2011) study then, is to understand the interaction between own physical ability and aesthetic evaluation.
The study had participants (with little or no dance experience) view many short video clips of ballet while getting an fMRI scan. After watching each video clip of dance, participants were asked how much they enjoyed the dance, and how well they (as in the participants) think they could reproduce the dance motions. The brain images showed that while observing others’ physical movements, brain areas including the bilateral parietal, premotor, supplemental motor, and occipitotemporal cortices were activated. Bilateral activation within the visual brain region was activated even more when viewing dance that was particularly enjoyable. Additionally, the middle temporal gyri were more active when participants viewed dance moves that were perceived to be more difficult to reproduce. The main finding was that the amount of liking and ability to reproduce the movements were related – participants enjoyed viewing more difficult-looking dance moves, and this was paired with increased activity in the bilateral occipitotemporal cortices as well as the right inferior parietal lobe.
From the study, I now know that I am not the only person who feel inspired and feel immense joy when watching something that I have no knowledge in myself. I also now know the neural correlates behind these experiences, which mainly consist of the occipitotemporal and parietal brain regions. But why does this phenomenon happen in the first place? I can’t quite remember where I first heard this, but there’s the idea that people find pleasure in viewing other people perform with immense skill, especially when the skilled other makes their talent seem easy. This same phenomenon may be occurring when the participants in the Cross et al. (2011) study viewed the highly trained ballet dancers, and when I watched the young professional dancers in First Position. The effortless nature of someone else’s performance, combined with the fact that that skill is so beyond my reach, is perhaps what fills me with awe and pleasure. This is probably why people pay a lot of money to view a professional basketball game, or attend an opera, or listen to live music. We want to witness other people perform flawlessly because we just can’t do it ourselves.
Here’s a link for fans of First Position: http://www.balletdocumentary.com/
And here’s my favorite contestant in the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yg3WuUYzRo
Cross, E. S., Kirsch, L., Ticini, L. F., & Schutz-Bosbach, S. (2011). The impact of aesthetic evaluation and physical ability on dance perception. Frontiers in Human Nueorscience, 5, 102. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00102.
Daly, E. (2012). First Position. Retrieved from http://ourfaithinaction.net/2012/first-position/