Interview with Beatriz Calvo-Merino, part 1: Dance + Neurons = Dance Neuroaesthetics

by deborah on 02/23/2011

Dr. Beatriz Calvo-Merino for the end of topics and series of interviews regarding dance, movement,  science and technology driven by neurons, muscles, bones, and ideas.

She gave a lecture titled ‘Dancing in the brain: the neuroaesthetic of performing arts’ during coldly December in Zagreb, as a part of the Cognitive of the Performative programme by the Centre for Drama Art aka cdu.

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Photo above: Beatriz Calvo-Merino, by Tom Medak (cc)
Photo bellow: Human Brain, taken from sharpbrains.com


Dr. Beatriz Calvo-Merino is a neuroscientist working at the Department of Psychology, City University London. She trained at University College London (UK) and Universidad Complutense Madrid (Spain).

Her research interest focuses on the neural underpinnings of performing arts and the neuroaesthetics of dance. She has established collaborations with the dance community (Royal Opera House, Random Dance Company -London) and her work has been published and disseminated in high impact factor peer-reviewed journals as well as dance meetings and public engagement activities. (bio taken from cdu.hr)

In her lecture, Beatriz Calvo-Merino presented a scientific pilot research that included ballet dancers, capoeira martial artists and Indian dancers because of the similarities in their movements.

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She also ‘focuses on recent studies using expertise as a tool for  understanding the neural and cognitive mechanisms by which we observe  others’ actions. In the used paradigm, her lab is comparing participants with different motor  skills (e.g. dancers), while they observe different types of movements (e.g., dance  moves). These movements are either familiar to participants, or novel.

This approach enables scientists to dissociate the contributions of motor experience  (familiar vs. unfamiliar moves) and motor skills (ability to perform these moves)  for action observation and understanding.’ (taken from: www.univie.ac.at)

How did science researches in sport help you in your work?

BCM: A lot! Actually there are a lot of things going on in the psychology of the sports. At first I started with sports, then with dancers. We initially thought about doing the research with sport because at the end of the day, like when we were exploring foot movements, we realized that it doesn’t matter if it’s dance or sport. What matters is that some people have better motoric skills, than other people.

So, from the scientific point of view it doesn’t matter if you have learned ballet movements, football or tennis.  What matters is that you have a special motoric repertoire that works only for you. It’s something that other people don’t have, because it’s individually based.

The psychology of the sport is a very, very large field. There are so many studies, and there are so many other studies about the methodology on how do we look at the sport, or how do we learn from them. Because, many people say they would learn through imitation. So, by looking at something, you have to internalize it, and you have to memorize it, you know, put it in your head and then you can do it. Thus, these meta-mental imaginary helps many times to performance. It can be used as a technique.

I see, as a visualization technique too… For example, high jumpers before they actually jump look like they are kind of visualizing the whole jump before the real action takes place…

BCM: Yes, when they are training! I mean, you have to have every single step of the movement very clear in your head and visualize it before doing it. There is no room or gap in these cases, you know, for a millisecond or for an open improvisation.

After these researches you’ve made, and scans of the brain, did you then compare it with sport? Could you find some analogy? I’m talking now about physical aspect, later on we will switch to aesthetics which belongs to different part of the brain…

BCM: Well, there are no same studies that had been done parallel with sports, but I would say it’s the same case because it doesn’t matter if it is dance or sport. What matters is that it’s a motor skill. I think they are the same, because their interpretation is about motor simulation that can be applied. You perceive it no matter if it’s movement in dance, or when you watch a sport movements. So, I think the same brain activation would apply to a sport, and the same interpretation of the sports in this context.

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Random Dance Company  (c)

Now we can switch to aesthetics, you have used basically some researches from the field that existed previously… But you also said that neuroaesthetics is quite a young discipline from 2005…

BCM: First, let’s say that neuroaesthetics is a very new discipline. Aesthetic doesn’t have to be necessarily related to the piece of art, although during the history the whole scene has developed.

People who have studied aesthetics with art, of course, can see aesthetic in everything. You can see aesthetic in daily movements. But we have to take into account that they have only studied master pieces in visual arts. Their experience is based on the pieces of art, and now in dance too. So, I’m not aware of any study that has compared aesthetic and sport.

But of course, something that I can think of when talking about this is that in sports you look at the level of the technique. This is something that in sports people have already done through different researches, how the expert and a regular human see the movements.

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Random Dance Company  (c)

For example, when you have a basketball player who is going to throw the ball, this is not aesthetic, this is just someone throwing. Another basketball player can tell you precise when the person is just throwing the ball or the ball is not getting into the basket. When looking around it a bit more he sees that the angle is not good or the path of the ball is different. Another person could say: Oh, yeah, maybe it’s going to hit the basket, maybe it’s coming in!

So, the expert can tell this in a very early stage, and the non-expert needs to see the end of the movement and needs to see that the ball is closer to the range, he can’t tell before.

Hence, there is something in the brain of the expert that allows him to see more details and appreciate things that others can’t see. The brain of the ‘naïve’ can’t appreciate it. But, this is not really aesthetic, it’s just technique.

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Royal Opera House, Chroma by Wayne McGregor
Photo by Bill Cooper (c), Independent

Yeah, it’s about experience and continuity…

BCM: Yeah! But this might be the way to go for someone who wants to study aesthetic in sports. That’s efficient.

Your work is now sort of a pioneering work. What was like to work with dancers? Dancers are now opening themselves to science and new media, more than they did it before. Science is now very trendy in art… btw, do you enjoy it? (laughs)

BCM: Yeah! (laughs) I do enjoy it very much! I mean, compared to what artists do today… During my lecture you have seen a type of the stimuli you would use when you study basic science:  there are dots, movements, hand moving. Suddenly with dance you can explore more interesting things, they are more complex.

The respond of the brain is really complex. So, when you are looking at dots it’s very easy to see the activity in the brain. One dot here, one dot in the brain, more or less. But if you have someone moving, the response you get is much more complex and it’s very difficult to interpret. But, beside all these, it’s more fun. Dancers give a new perspective to the different sides. We, the scientists, we are very narrow when we look at the aesthetics.

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Random Dance Company (c)

I mean, you can see, while talking that looking at the visual process is just one stimuli, but that’s not the whole story. So, dancers and artists in general, they give us the bigger picture. I think that scientists sometimes forget the bigger picture out there.  We are doing just small pictures. So, yeah, I’m pro scientist and artist collaboration. I think it can benefit the future.

It’s complicated and it’s not easy because we talk from different angles, we have different language, but anyway we are talking about the same thing. We are talking differently about it and we understand it in a different manner. So, it’s not an easy way to communicate and to agree, but it provides experience that is becoming richer. But there are still lots of things to do there. I mean, things are starting.

It’s just the beginning…

BCM: It’s just the beginning. I mean, as you said before, it’s also very popular among artists. It’s very popular now to say that ‘this piece has been created after collaborating with a scientist’. That gives a different value to the piece. I think there is a little bit of everything. We benefit from them, they benefit from us.

Maybe in the future, after some collaborations we would do something in common, not just me taking from you, and you taking from me, but really something in common. Right now, we are still a bit far away from that. I mean, we just arrived into the media, but it’s not that easy to handle it.

Read the second part of the interview with Beatriz Calvo-Merino titled Science and Dance, Brain and Movement