Professional dancers bounded across the stage at the opening presentation of the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Watching them move in perfect coordination with music triggers a host of questions for neuroscientists and non-dancers alike: How do these artists know when their joints have extended "just-so" to execute a move? What drives this sense of body awareness--what neuroscientists call proprioception? And how do they know when and where to step to avoid the most ungraceful of collisions? The answers are difficult to explain, even for world-renowned choreographer Mark Morris (pictured).
"It's like driving a car, you're just there," Morris said. His panel discussion "Dance: Movement in Time & Space" was billed as a forum to explore questions that seemed to overlap the worlds of dance and neuroscience, like how the dancers in Morris' famous company learn and remember the complicated sequence of body movements for both their roles in the piece and the roles of their fellow dancers.
Neuroscience Society President Eve Marder and visual neurobiologist Bevil Conway of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. moderated the panel, which played out in front of an audience of at least 1,000 conference participants. Morris tackled such questions as whether a sense of rhythm is inherent in human nature. He said all humans cleave to rhythms, whether it's the rhythm of a heartbeat or the rhythmic repetition of trees and rocks in the the background of a Flintstones cartoon show that signifies movement.
His remarks seemed to resonate with the scientists in the audience, who submitted dozens of index cards marked with questions for the artist. But the discussion also revealed the challenge of reconciling the gap --one could say the synaptic gap-- between the neuroscience's approach of dissecting the components of a movement and explaining how they're planned and executed by the brain, and the dancer's goal of producing the same movement with comprehensive fluidity.
Morris' hands undulate in the air as he speaks. More than once, his hands lifted in mock exasperation as he struggled to articulate exactly how he can listen to rhythms and translates their motion. "I don't dance in words," he says. That may not be what some neuroscientists want to hear, since their goals include putting words to the neural process that produce motions like a child's wild skipping and a dancer's grande jete leap. But it signifies the tremendous challenges facing any researcher who seeks to understand how and why our brains work the way they do.