Move the body, transform the mind: the psychology of dance
Last year i wrote a popular post for Forbes on the revealing psychological benefits of aerobic exercise. This article hypothesized that vigorous exercise can improve mood and reduce stress in a way similar to psychotherapy: by providing new experiences of the self. When runners or weightlifters challenge and push their limits, it is a powerful psychological experience, not just a purely physical experience.
Could it be that other forms of physical movement serve as portals for emotional and cognitive change? It should be noted that many people who practice aerobic exercise, from jogging to hot yoga, do so with musical accompaniment. Consider the role of music and dance in worship across cultures, in major life cycle events such as weddings and parties. Popular Jewish singer / songwriter Ari Goldwag recently released the song Lo Nafsik Lirkod (Never Stop Dancing), which connects dancing to experiences of joy, gratitude and “the sky is the limit”. Similar perspectives can be found in the dance of praise among African Americans and pentecostal churches, the cham dance Tibetan Buddhism and the ritual dances in Hindu cultures. Dance becomes a way to connect to broader meanings and deeper emotional experiences, especially those associated with positivity. It is no coincidence that we commonly find dancing at wedding receptions, not funerals.
Christophe Bergland cites evidence that dance is good for the brain, observing that professional dance requires high levels of cognitive development as well as physical training. He reviews dance neuroscience studies and concludes that dance-based movement can help synchronize people with each other, reduce depression, and improve quality of life. There is also evidence of dancer / psychologist Peter Lovett that dancing improves creativity and even reading skills. A research review and Harvard Medical School practice finds that dance too offers movement-based therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease; Interestingly, similar benefits are found with the Chinese martial art, tai chi.
What if the most effective way to instill a change in state of mind was to immerse ourselves in its corresponding physical expression? Could it be that meditation is effective because it uses extreme physical and mental stillness to cultivate appeasement of the mind? An effective treatment for depression is known as behavioral activation. Pursuing meaningful activities breaks the cycle of negativity and disengagement common in depression. The way we use the body creates potentially new and constructive experiences for the mind and brain. A promising development path for performance-oriented professionals is to translate psychological goals into movement routines that cultivate the mindsets associated with those goals.. So, for example, if I want to become a more disciplined trader in the financial markets, learning a dance form that requires exquisite control could provide a quick and powerful path to my goals. Likewise, if I’m looking to become a more confident and energetic risk-taker in the markets, I might continue with high-intensity interval training or sync tough workout routines to particularly catchy and uplifting music.
In a very important sense, any intentional movement can be turned into a dance.. By placing the body in unique states, we create pathways for new states of mind. Perhaps the best way to achieve our ideals is to cultivate them physically first.