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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

[Wherein our Hero ponders what makes us dance, and why we might do it.]

Last night I was driving home from work and was stopped at a red light. Across the street, waiting to walk was a girl. And she was dancing to her ipod. For some reason, this always makes me smile.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing someone dancing along in their own little world. It’s always a bit of a judgment call as to whether you think ‘what a dick’ or ‘good for you’. Can they just not control their impulses? Can they, but choose to ignore them? To ignore what everyone is doing around them? Are they not aware that there are people around them?

Now I’m not a dancer (and I don’t do karaoke, either) so I don’t really understand it. Dance is generally accepted as some kind of emotional expression, but I just don’t get it. I mean, I can watch someone else dance and understand what they’re trying to convey (I’m not completely a-cultural), but if you asked me to spend 30 seconds physically conveying some particular emotion I’d probably end up miming.

Interestingly, children can pick up what is being expressed in dance. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of a paper by Lagerlof & Djerf (2009):

Professional dancers were instructed to improvise on the emotions of joy, anger, fear, and sadness and to transform these improvisations into short solo dances, which were recorded on video. Eight performances were selected for use as stimuli. Children, aged 4, 5, and 8 years, and adults watched these performances and indicated which of the four emotions they perceived in the respective performance. All age groups achieved recognition scores well above chance level. As a rule, 4-year-olds’ recognition was inferior to that of the other age groups, but in some cases either girls or boys of this age achieved as good a recognition as one or more of the other age groups. The 5-year-old children achieved recognition levels close to those obtained for 8-year-olds and adults.

I personally find that fascinating. Kids get it. Now social influences can probably explain a whole lot about dancing, but my initial thoughts were that there is probably something evolutionary about it. I don’t know what, but a few things tipped me off. Chief among them (and we’ve all seen this, for sure) is some silly little baby dancing away to music. Perhaps they’re just trying to match the beat, or follow the melody, who knows what – but they’re doing some kind of a primitive, underdeveloped movement to music.

Here’s an example.

Now the kid could just be modelling the dancers, a highly likely suggestion. But kids do this kind of thing without models as well. I’m not going to try and suggest that kids don’t get any dancing understanding from watching others, they clearly do, but I’m making a bit of a guess that they’d do it anyway.

A paper by Phillips-Silver, Aktipis & Bryant (2010) proposed a frame-work for why we might entrain (to sync) to such stimuli. One suggestion is the capacity to pick detect, perceive and ultimately respond is part of our Vocal Learning system. This ‘Vocal Learning Hypothesis’ suggests that dance is a byproduct of our ability to mimic vocalizations in others. I guess it has some legs – body language is hugely important in communication, and a great deal of rapport is built by mimicking body language during communication – it’s not a huge step to formalize that process and drop the language part altogether. However Phillips-Silver and co. aren’t too impressed by this theory and suggest instead that physical entrainment to both social and environmental stimuli might have led to dance. It’s a nuanced difference, but does address some of the weaknesses in the Vocal Learning account.

Hagen and Bryant (2003) propose that dancing is some kind of coalition quality signalling system. At first I scoffed – what evidence can you cite? But as I read I bought into it a little more. Lots of animals bodily communicate threat or opportunity to others, and humans are no different. In fact, humans are highly co-operative and having some kind of a socially weighted system of communication could have its advantages. They say Musical performances attract, and are greatly enjoyed by, non-group members, precisely the opposite effect desired if music functioned to warn off intruders [Ed: if said intruders are assumed to be human]. The solution to this puzzle can be found in a distinctive feature of human territorial defense: groups commonly enhance their ability to defend their territories by forming alliances with neighbouring groups. Territorial defense and alliance formation both require communicating credible information about group capability to non-group members, information that would deter intruders but attract allies. I intend to read this paper more deeply later, but as it stands I’m not entirely convinced.

I must say, however, it does make some interesting predictions which can be experimentally examined. Food for thought, at the very least.

As for the girl at the lights, I doubt she was signalling the threat of a Lion. If we were to return to social/evo explanations it would be far more parsimonious to bring up some kind of a sexual selection mechanism – maybe she saw a guy she liked the look of and decided to make a neat impression. Hagen and Bryan (2003) have a list of reasons why they don’t like the Sexual Selection hypothesis. Some are reasonably compelling.

I love Evolutionary Psychology, but it has the common pitfall of descending into ‘just so’ stories. For instance – [reason 5 against sexual selection hypothesis] – Heterosexuals of all ages … are strongly attracted to music groups of the same sex. That can be flipped around so many ways it’s essentially useless. Maybe they’re such damn good dancers they can attract hetero’s to them anyway (hell, if you can flip the competition for mates towards you, that frees up access to the opposite sex, right?). Music groups are often terrible dancers. Music makes people dance. Who cares who makes the music, if it means I can dance and get the pretty girl? Also, about a million social explanations that include shared interests, shared ideologies, ingroup/outgroup dynamics, blah blah blah. Evo Psych has the potential to be hugely unifying and powerful, if only its practitioners can move beyond such simplistic just-so fallacies.

But again, the girl, I don’t know why she was doing it. But it was nice to see someone so uninhibited and expressive. It’s just a shame I can’t understand more about it.

...and just for fun:

Is there not a person in the world who needs to dance as much as a Soldier? As Nietzsche said:

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

Lagerlof & Djerf (2009). Children's Understanding of Emotion in Dance Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17405620701438475

Phillips-Silver, J., Aktipis, C., & A. Bryant, G. (2010). The Ecology of Entrainment: Foundations of Coordinated Rhythmic Movement Music Perception, 28 (1), 3-14 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2010.28.1.3

Hagen, E., & Bryant, G. (2002). Music and Dance as a Coalition Signalling System Human Nature DOI: 10.1007/s12110-003-1015-z

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My kid (15 months, a smidge older than the video baby, I think) started dancing along during the movie Dumline- it totally cracked us up. The evolutionary advantage in kids that can pick up physical movements is pretty obvious. But there does seem like there ought to be some pro-social advantage to music (dancing and singing, for that matter).

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Can you clarify? The evo advantage in picking up physical movements is obvious - how so?

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