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  • John Lowry

Dance and You Shall Think

The prevailing view on how we think is that we use language: through writing our thoughts down, or debating them with friends, or reading other people’s words in books. But might there be some concepts, some feelings, some images, that are beyond words? After all, what’s the point of visual art or design or classical music if they don’t have meaning without the words to describe them? What are our thoughts really made of?

Psychologist Barbara Tversky wants to turn that theory on its head. She offers a major new theory of human cognition: movement, not language, is the foundation of thought.

When we try to think about how we think, we can't help but think of words. Indeed, some have called language the stuff of thought. But images are remembered far better than words, and describing faces, scenes, and events defies words. Anytime you take a shortcut or play chess or basketball or rearrange your furniture in your mind, you've done something remarkable: abstract thinking without words. 



In her book, "Mind in Motion", Ms Taversky demonstrates that spatial cognition isn't just a peripheral aspect of thought, but its very foundation, enabling us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world. Our actions in real space get turned into mental actions on thought, often spouting spontaneously from our bodies as gestures. Spatial thinking underlies creating and using maps, assembling furniture, devising football strategies, designing airports, understanding the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, why we’re feeling up or have grown far apart.

"Mind in Motion" gives us a new way to think about how–and where–thinking takes place.


The role of dance

It is not then, too much a stretch of imagination, to understand why dance is deeply embedded in all cultures. What some think is no more than a pleasant, but meaningless pastime, may well be central to human thought and creativity.


It is thought that dance pre-dated music in much the way that movement pre-dated language. We also know that body language is a much more reliable form of communication than words.


Dance then, either as a participant in partner dance or as performance offers a direct form of communication that does not require interpretation with words. Dancers in a performance, either formal as with ballet, or informal as with may folk dances including Flamenco can transmit powerful ideas an emotions across a room or theatre space.

As dances become more personal, in the many "courtship" folk dances and social partner dances, the communication of thoughts, ideas and emotions becomes more direct and more intense through touch and movement.


This form of communication through dance reached its peak with the development of Argentine Tango in the first half of the 20th century, where couples conduct a silent conversation via a vocabulary of movement in a tight embrace that instantly conveys ideas and emotions in a moment-to-moment call and response. A large group of experienced dancers can expand the mental "alignment" to fill a room with energy.


Understanding that movement in space is the foundation of thought helps us to see why dance engages more regions of the brain and forms more neural connections than any other activity.

Dance should be an important part of every school curriculum and your daily life to improve learning, social cohesion and to maintain better mental, emotional and physical health.


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