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See Inside July 2008

So You Think You Can Dance?: PET Scans Reveal Your Brain's Inner Choreography

Recent brain-imaging studies reveal some of the complex neural choreography behind our ability to dance

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So natural is our capacity for rhythm that most of us take it for granted: when we hear music, we tap our feet to the beat or rock and sway, often unaware that we are even moving. But this instinct is, for all intents and purposes, an evolutionary novelty among humans. Nothing comparable occurs in other mammals nor probably elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Our talent for unconscious entrainment lies at the core of dance, a confluence of movement, rhythm and gestural representation. By far the most synchronized group practice, dance demands a type of interpersonal coordination in space and time that is almost nonexistent in other social contexts.

Even though dance is a fundamental form of human expression, neuroscientists have given it relatively little consideration. Recently, however, researchers have conducted the first brain-imaging studies of both amateur and professional dancers. These investigations address such questions as, How do dancers navigate though space? How do they pace their steps? How do people learn complex series of patterned movements? The results offer an intriguing glimpse into the complicated mental coordination required to execute even the most basic dance steps.

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