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Why do we dance?

Music and dance are integral factors of every human culture known, contemporary or historical.

With such ubiquity, the question of nature versus nurture is bound to arise. That is – do we all dance simply out of social norms? Does every culture we know of include dance simply due to common societal ancestry? Or, is there an inherent biological aspect of human beings that inclines us to dance?

As perhaps as difficult a question – how could we tell? Where could we look to explore the question?

The answer is adorably fun: babies .

Nature vs Nurture: the realm of baby-science.

Most nature-vs-nurture questions are approached by studying the brain. And yet in adults, even a purely socially acquired faculty will have tangible effects on and in the brain. What we learn, what we see, what we experience is physically imprinted on our brains, so it’s very difficult to tell what is ‘natural.’ Because infants have acquired so little socialization, they are ideal for studying nature-vs-nurture questions.

So, how do we go about studying dancing babies? Well, if we consider dancing to be an enjoyable activity that synchronizes, in some way, physical movement with rhythmic sounds, we can break the question into three sections:

Do infants ‘hear’ rhythm, or are rhythmic sounds no different to them than random sounds?

If so, do infants synchronize their movement to rhythmic sound?

And if so, do infants enjoy that synchronized movement?

For the first question, let’s turn to Semmelwells University in Budapest. There, researchers set out to determine whether infants recognize rhythm.

Baby brain caps.

To detect neurological responses to rhythmic beat, the researchers used a technique called electroencephalography, or EEG. This system measures voltages at different points on the subject’s head. Individual neurons, when they communicate with other neurons, create tiny little voltages; taken in large swaths, however, these minute voltages compound into large enough charges that they can be read with sensitive electrodes placed on the scalp. Researchers looked for a specific pattern in activity known as mismatch negativity – when the brain comes to expect a particular sensory input and that expectation is not met, a telltale jump in activity in a certain region illustrates the brain’s surprise. So – if, say, infants were expecting a particular rhythm to continue, and it didn’t , there would be a particular jump in brain readings.

And that’s just what the researchers looked for.

The infants were exposed to recordings of percussion. In every case, the infants were exposed first to a recording of a full, fleshed-out rhythm of downbeats and interstitial beats. Something like ‘BUHtatataBUHtatataBUHtatataBUH.’ The recording would then switch to one of four altered tracks. Three of those four were altered such that weak percussive beats were removed – creating something like, ‘BUHta taBUHta taBUHta taBUH.’ When we hear this as adults, we experience a variation of rhythm, rather than a loss of rhythm – because the driving rhythm, the series of downbeats, is preserved. The fourth track that infants could hear, however, dropped the downbeat also – something like, ‘BUHta ta tata BUHta.’ If we were to hear this, we would have a moment of surprise, thinking that the music unexpectedly dropped the beat.

Apparently: the babies thought so too .

Babies to dubstep: “Don’t drop the beat.”

In trials in which babies heard the first track followed by a track that removed drum-beats but didn’t ‘drop the rhythm,’ no mismatch negativity was recorded. This suggests that the babies did not hear anything unexpected, so long as the underlying rhythm was maintained.

In the trials in which babies heard the first track followed by a track that removed the downbeats, the track that ‘lost the rhythm,’ there was a strong mismatch negativity. The babies expected the rhythm to continue, and showed a strong reaction of surprise when the rhythm broke.

So: babies can pick up rhythm. Pretty awesome in itself, but – will they dance to it?

According to two scientists working in Geneva: heck yes they will .

Nobody puts baby in a corner.

In their study, infants were exposed to one of a variety of rhythmic pieces – different types of music or simple drumbeats – or to adult speech, which has rhythmic qualities but no consistent rhythmic structure. Videos were taken of the infants while they listened to the recordings and were later analyzed by both researchers and professional dancers to evaluate when and to what extent the infants’ movements were synchronized with the rhythm of the recordings.

The results were clear: in almost every rhythmically structured 30-second piece, the infants would synchronize some movement (usually a bopping of one or both legs) with the rhythm of the piece for a period of 6-10 continuous seconds. No significant synchronization was observed between movement and sound when the recorded pieces did not have a clear rhythmic pattern.

Important to note is the fact that, at such a young age, infants have only slight and sporadic voluntary control of limbs – meaning in all likelihood their rhythmic movement was at least in part the expression of a spontaneous and inborn connection between auditory sensation and motor control.

So, not only will babies dance to rhythmic sounds, they’re even in a way dancing on automatic .

Too cool.

And they like it too!

Not satisfied with having shown that infants spontaneously dance – albeit a crude form of dance – our Genevan researchers further analyzed the videos to measure the correlation between rhythmically synchronized movement and smiling , examining the extent to which the infants found their spontaneous dancing to be pleasurable. In this analysis, a strong correlation was indeed observed between synchronized movement and smiling. So our automatically-dancing babies love to dance .

So there you have it, straight from the most recent half-decade of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science . Straight from the womb, we’re dancers – dancers-on-autopilot even, at first.

So the next time you feel the urge to groove – do it! The next time you tell yourself you ‘don’t know how’ to dance, slap your hand, because that’s a lie. You were born knowing how; your limbs know how, without your control. So just let go, smile, and get moving – you’re built for it!

Bonus Content: Video Proof…

What do you think of this particular slice of the nature-vs-nurture debate? Do you think creativity and/or the artistic instinct is something we’re born with? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to explore our Music Mondays series , where we explore (among other things!) the science of music.

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