Can dance improve memory?
I can recall lots of ways people have told me to look after my memory. My parents do a cross-word every morning and provided me with ‘Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training’ on Nintendo DS as a child, and I distinctly remember my Spanish teacher reading aloud with gusto a newspaper article that covered the benefits of being bilingual to the brain.
We have, as a society, curated ways of looking after our brains that fall into the sort of mind-work that we do at school, language and number puzzles, static activities that require sitting down and frowning over a piece of paper. But our brain and bodies are one and the same (to quote another teacher, I remember a lecturer insistently using the term ‘bodymind,’ all one word, throughout my degree), and so, although all these traditional methods are useful, it makes sense that to properly get our mind and all its facets working, we must also move our bodies.
There have been multiple studies done on the link between dance and improved brain function. A study published in 2017 explored the benefit of ballroom dancing on a group of older adults with mild cognitive impairment, and ‘significant differences’ were found in how well the test group performed in a cognitive test compared to the control group.
What’s even more interesting is that dancing in particular seems to have these benefits. A study published in 2003 looked at the cognitive benefits of different leisure activities for people aged 75 and over, and ran for 21 years. Dancing had the most significant benefits to cognitive health over any of the other activities they studied. To give you some context, reading reduced dementia risk by 35%, doing crosswords at least 4 days a week by 47% , and dancing regularly reduced dementia risk by…75%. To make things even more intriguing, other physical activities like swimming or golf seemed to have no effect on reducing dementia risk. The only exception to this was dance.
There haven’t been any scientific studies specifically exploring why dance, and not other forms of physical activity, reduce dementia risk so much, but there are a few theories.
A big one is to do with learning new things. When we learn something new, a connection, known as a neural pathway, forms in our brain.
Richard Powers from the Stanford University writes:
‘The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths)’
Every dance session, particularly at Curious Motion, is very slightly different. We might repeat a few exercises, but there might be a new thing to think about whilst performing it, such as adding breath or using the eyes, or we might do a different improvisation score. This variety, and the way the lessons gently require participants to think on their feet, is a fantastic work-out for the brain, because it means it’s learning new things, and more neural pathways are being developed.
Scientists believe that this keeps our brains healthy, because learning new things constantly requires the brain to ‘rewire’ itself, keeping it active and also preserving the memories that are already there. I like to think of it like a garden. By planting lots of different flowers, you can keep the ground fertile, the wildlife happy, and preserve the older plants that are already there.
One thing I was unable to find in my research for this post was much study on dance and the memory and cognitive plasticity of people in other groups, rather than those most at risk of dementia. Do regular dance classes improve children’s ability to learn new words, for example, or help politicians remember speeches better? I would suspect the answer is yes, but perhaps, as a dance advocate, I’m biased on that point! If you know of any studies on these areas, I’d love to see them. Or maybe we’ll have to conduct an experiment of our own.
For now though, I’m just pleased with the idea that my parents sending me to ballet was perhaps better for my memory than ‘Brain Training’ ever was. Sorry Dr Kawashima.
Until next time,