Can thinking about dance help us understand how students could learn from experiential education?

April 4, 2009 at 8:22 PM

In this blog, we have thought of the “other lobe of the brain” as the limbic system, the emotional system that made logical decisions about meaning and value to accompany the facts-and-theories type of logic that some have called academic intelligence.  But here we wonder if that concept of the “other lobe” should be broadened to include the motor system.  This idea occured because one of us (Jim) sits on the Psychology Department honors project thesis committee of a senior undergraduate (Vanessa).  She studied non-verbal communication.  Her research focused on whether dancers are better than non-dancers at detecting emotion conveyed by short dance vignettes when facial expressions are obscured. They are.  In related conversations, those two developed the following blog post. We (Shwen and Jim) thought the idea of a new “other lobe” might be intriguing to some of you, so here it is.


-Shwen and Jim



Can thinking about dance help us understand how students could

learn from experiential education?


By Vanessa Castro ’09 and Jim Stellar


From where do we get the next thought in a simple conversation or more elaborate creative ideas?  Maybe asking from where we get a spontaneous arm wave or a creative dance sequence would be helpful in addressing this question. Also, the line between spontaneous movement and creativity is fine. What distinguishes a movement as creative, rather than just spontaneous, perhaps can be attributed to the value placed on such a movement. For example, a spontaneous movement may be inconsequential or insignificant. However, a spontaneous movement that is seen in a certain beneficial light may be seen called creative. Consider my (Vanessa’s) experience as a dancer. (Jim can’t dance.)


Dance is a series of movements strung together to form some coherent sense or meaning. This meaning can be explanatory, descriptive, or simply reactionary. Detailed stories can be expressed through dance as can simple emotions and human reactions. When choreographing a dance, little conscious thought is actually involved. Instead, what occurs is a form of spontaneous movement that results in creativity: the creation of inventive, innovative, and independent dance moves.


My experience with choreographing stems from my experience dancing. It can be argued that dance is a learned activity. Thus, in order to create new dance moves, one must borrow information learned from participating in dance, or actually dancing. This happens to me all the time. As I am choreographing, it is not unusual for me to visualize the steps I have “created” rather than actually dancing them out. In this sense, I am borrowing information from my previous experiences in dance (i.e. having done a double turn OR watching someone do a double turn) and then applying this knowledge to my current creative state where I can visualize a double turn as the next appropriate step. This process does not require active thinking about the steps. In fact, I would argue that active and conscious thinking about what move should come next often results in the opposite of creativity. Often I have forced my mind to concentrate on putting together a sequence of steps by actively recalling my experiential dance knowledge. This has not led to creative choreography, but rather steps that look an awful lot like the knowledge I just pulled to my mind. Therefore, it can be assumed that spontaneous creativity is more of an unconscious process and that forcing conscious thought into the process of creativity can destroy the creative nature of the task.


This process is further complicated by the connection between un or subconscious cognition and the motor system. Because choreographing does involve physical movement, the motor system is engaged. However, there must exist some kind of connection between the motor system and an unidentified cognitive element that facilitates the production of spontaneous creativity. Moreover, it has been my experience that when choreographing in a certain mood or affective state, the end product is dependant on the affective state I am experiencing. This can be supported by research that suggests internal states and dispositions affect an individual’s perception. Therefore, if we are feeling sad, we perceive these feelings as true and thus manifest these feelings outward. It would interesting to isolate this phenomena by instructing people to improv dance after inducing specific emotions and then coding the movements according to the nonverbal cues they elicit. This may suggest the connection between the motor system and the cognitive component of the limbic system. If we feel a certain way, we act a certain way, and often this relationship exists beneath the surface of conscious thought. Therefore, it is plausible that such a relationship exists behind spontaneous creativity, and that this relationship is reinforced by active rehearsal or experience.


This kind of thinking has relevance for experiential education.  I (Jim) have heard one of the gurus of learning from practice, Professor Joe Raelin (also at Northeastern), speak about how Ted Williams had a baseball swing that was a thing of true beauty, but that he seemed unable to translate that high performance into good coaching of a team.  Professor Raelin speculates that tacit knowledge, as in such motor acts, may require reflection to get that knowledge to a surface level where it can be operated on cognitively.  In previous blogs, we have see reflection as communicating between the logic contained in emotional intelligence that comes from experience and the logic with which education is more familiar in academic intelligence.  But Vanessa’s story suggests that this formulation of the “other lobe of the brain” may be too limited.  Here we are talking about the motor system, and reading what she wrote above, the same role for reflection. 


Of course, the motor system is well known to be connected to the emotional system.  Neuroscientists who studied this matter a few years ago called it motor-limbic handshaking.  Perhaps the most famous American Psychologist, B.F. Skinnner stressed that out of the spontaneous behavior of animals (and humans) one could train up an operant behavior (a rat pressing a lever) with a reinforcement (something the rat wanted, e.g. food when it was hungry).  So, it seems that the motor system is intimately related to and guided by the emotional system.  But it could be even deeper than that.  Mirror neurons are supposed to reside in the motor system and encode acts of others perhaps using the same circuitry that the organism would use to generate the motor sequence themselves.  Some have even written about these mirror neurons as contributing to empathy.  Again, there is that connection to emotion, to an underlying logic that may have a certain independence of our academic understanding of the matter.  Indeed, non-verbal cues are well known to play a key role in communicating emotional states between humans that accompany the verbal content of the spoken communication.  In a conversation, you may understand what I say through your academic intelligence, but you may trust me in saying it because of this other non-verbal channel. 


In addition to the limbic system, it appears that the motor system may warrant thought in considering how we learn from experience.  More than just motor skill learning, what students learn on a job site may come down to processing the creative “dance” of verbal and non-verbal communication between established professionals.  Perhaps only then can the student be comfortable enough to see the academic content knowledge of their field at work and see the team play that puts that knowledge into action. 


There is a lot to think about here.  We would love to hear from you.


Cortical subcortical integration and decisions: An amygdala-prefrontal cortex neural circuit case study

5 Responses to “Can thinking about dance help us understand how students could learn from experiential education?”

  1. Kristen says:

    Vanessa and Jim! This is marvelous. I have actually wondered what gives dancers the ability to channel their creativity into choreographing.. on many, many occasions. It was mystifying to me because I sure wasn’t capable of doing it!

    Until I did.

    And it became so much easier after that initial struggle, which involved innumerable hours of practice and collaborating with a peer, to produce something creative. Almost as if I had strengthened the existing connections (I’m very much into synaptic plasticity these days) enough to express this trait or ability of original creative expression, which had yet to manifest itself.
    Perhaps this too implies that we, as students and a generation, are capable of cultivating our dreams for the future in nearly any field with the help of experiential education. Although it may be a long and trying process, we simply have to persevere and struggle to learn our trade and the skills it entails in order for our true potential to manifest itself. Although a seemingly basic concept, it’s refreshing to know that we have the ABILITY to change ourselves and our brains (although not completely, folks!) if the drive exists.

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    I will let Vanessa speak for herself, but I wanted to flag an important point that you made about the long process of improvement and how a dancer (or really any athlete), knows about that process. The obvious parallel is to the steady growth of a college student over time, especially when academic study is blended with experience. The emerging confidence of someone who has mastered their “field” probably does not reside in the parts of the brain from which academic intelligence operates, but maybe from where emotional intelligence and/or skill learning operates. The question for me is how does an institution optimize that form of growth in a college setting?

  3. Vanessa says:

    I think guided/personal experience is the element that you are questioning Jim. Mentoring is definitely a part of this as well as personal worth. You need to value an experience as being worthy to really and truely learn from it, and to develop some kind of emotional reaction. As a social psychologist in training (and I love that I can now say that!), I think it wouldn’t hurt to have everyone take a psych class so they can learn about attribution because that’s also key. You may feel a certain emotion or affective arousal, but mis-attribute it.

  4. Robin says:

    So seductive! Blogging w. my former dean and student on the brain and its function in the stages of creativity, dance, and experiential ed. There’s something to be said regarding links between experiential learning, mentoring, skills mastery, and the art process. A wonderful story of a form of of Japanese architectural production in which one passes through the stages of apprentice, master builder, then teacher, then national treasure, never transgressing the required time it takes to experience the stages of acquiring not only technical skills but spiritual qualities (patience, self reflection, endurance, honesty et al), only later perfecting those skills through a return to the initial emotional energy (passion/spirit, intuition, reason,knowledge) that brought you to that task. Whether channeling creativity into choreography, painting, dance, music, film, drama traditional societies offer key insights into the role of memory capacity-emotional connection’s life experiences and brain’s storage and retrieval of information-in the creative process. How else could a poet recite the lineage of kings extemporaneously for three hrs., or a dancer reproduce dance routines for a performative ritual only presented once every 60 years that are not written down? Everything, down to the cellular level, is always in motion.
    We just can’t see(yet) at that level unaided by external devices. Yet the body and the brain are devices with both a material and spiritual dimension.
    Exploring the brain’s emotional need to release creative energy is one of the first stages in acknowledging the life of the mind.
    My experience is that these capacities/faculties are both intrinsic and socialized as integral to human emotional identity and how we permit the mind/body/spirit to validate ourselves. Yet the stimulus offered by a teacher is not unlike the definition of “guru”-dispeller of darkness. It is exhilarating to see the interplay of teacher and apprentice in this blog!

  5. Jim says:

    Thank you. I find it both heady and satisfying to think with colleagues of all types from students to faculty to staff. That team is just a better way, I have learned, to get it right … and more fun too.
    I find a hunger, especially today among our student, to complement the academic content and technical knowledge we cherish with another way of thinking that we have called on a whim the other lobe of the brain and that you stated more powefully when you referred to ” the brain’s emotional need to release creative energy.” We just have to keep figuring out how better to do that in college environment.

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