Mirror Neurons and The Role They Play in Dance/Movement Therapy

Perri Corsello
Nov 10, 2018 · 7 min read

Dance, movement and neuroscience are three fields of study that are the target of a relatively novel therapeutic approach aimed at rekindling empathy, social interaction, and morality within those who may have lost the ability to do so or those who have a disorder that prevents them from doing so. This type of therapy has been termed dance/movement therapy (DMT). DMT takes advantage of the fact that specific types of neurons, referred to as mirror neurons, have the ability to promote empathy, attachment, and social bonding through the use of dance and movement (Berrol 2006; McGarry & Russo 2011; Behrends et al. 2012; Koch et al. 1996; Pierce 2014). The mechanisms and ways in which dance and movement can be utilized in this way will be explored in this paper.

Mirror neurons and their function in the brain

The mirror neuron system is the neural network that DMT takes advantage of to confer its beneficial affects upon an individual. This mirror neuron system was first discovered in macaque monkeys. Single neurons were recorded with the use of microelectrodes while monkeys observed a series of actions such as grasping, holding, placing, and manipulating of food and other objects. Various groups of neurons fired in different patterns and frequencies depending on the type of action observed. The simple presentation of objects, faces, or hands did not evoke a response in these neurons. There had to be some type of action or goal directed behavior associated with the movement. The different types of mirror neurons associated with different actions were highly specific with regards to firing in response to the action. For example, a neuron that responded to grasping an object with a precision tool, such as with a pair of forceps, did not respond when grasping the same object with a hand, nor did the neuron respond when there was no object being grasped. This illustrates the high degree of specificity that this system of neurons can display. Some mirror neurons also responded specifically to which hand was used and the direction of the action (Gallese 1996).

Another similar study looked at whether or not individual mirror neurons in the monkey would respond to performing an action hidden from the monkey’s vision. This study also looked at whether or not different movements leading to the same goal evoked similar firing patterns. Some mirror neurons did indeed respond to the action even if it was hidden from view in addition to displaying similar firing patterns, even if different movements were executed with the same intention. This suggests that mirror neurons possess both intentional processing and the ability to represent actions even when they are hidden from view (Umilta et al 2001; McGarry & Russo 2011). All of these aforementioned studies were done in monkeys, however, many neuroimaging studies have strongly suggested there to be a homologous mirror neuron system in humans. These mirror neurons have been localized to the posterior inferior frontal gyrus, the neighboring ventral premotor cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule. The increased activity between these areas, as a result of mirror neuron activity, causes increased stimulation in the limbic system, resulting in a greater emotional response (McGarry & Russo 2012). Thus, the mirror neuron system is used as a conduit for accessing repressed emotional and empathic behaviors.

For example, a study was done where participants viewed or imitated emotional faces while an fMRI was being performed. Similar areas of their brains, corresponding to the location of mirror neurons, showed activation regardless of whether the participant was imitating or observing the action. The insula and amygdala, areas of the brain involved with emotion, displayed activation as well. This neural activation in both mirror neurons and emotional centers, when watching or participating in an action, shows that our brains need to recreate the same neural patterns to allow for the correct empathic response to be felt. This pattern of activation also suggests that the mirror neuron system mediates emotional responses via the limbic system. The body provides feedback from the muscles and elicits a visceral experience allowing the observer to emotionally connect with the person performing the action, just how observing or imitating facial expressions results in a visceral experience (McGarry & Russo 2011). These previously mentioned observations provides the basis for understanding the mechanisms behind DMT.

Empathy and Dance/Movement Therapy

Empathy is the embodiment of another’s experience and the feelings or ideas that come along with this embodiment. DMT specifically targets this aspect of human experience and, as previously mentioned, utilizes the mirror neuron system to do so. DMT employs the mirroring of a patient by a therapist to build a sense of empathy between the two. This is the perception-action cycle at work. The mirror neuron system has been viewed as the neural correlates of this perception-action cycle. Perceiving one’s actions activates mirror neurons creating a visceral experience within the observer due to the same activation of neurons in the observer, as if they were performing the movement. The ensuing action is a result of that visceral experience.

Empathic capacities may be lost or incapable in those who have experienced trauma and have post-traumatic stress disorder or have depression or autism. For example, Janet Adler, one of the early dance/movement therapists, is known for her work with autistic children and DMT. She utilized DMT to mirror the autistic children, and manifest an empathic connection between them, bringing them out of their shells. The results were profound. Children with no speech who had previously never engaged in personal relationships, began to confidently express themselves through movement. One autistic child proceeded to perform movements with a positive connotation and other children within the circle mirrored the child, demonstrating how DMT can be used in individuals with disorders that prevent them to socially and empathically bond with others (McGarry & Russo 2012). The ability to empathize with another encompasses many domains of human experience. To feel for another is one thing, but this mutual feeling can lead to the promotion of social bonding, attachment, and attunement. Therefore, empathy is essential when it comes to interacting with others. The ability for DMT to reestablish this empathic response in people is important in fostering connections between one another. This is observed in many cultures across the world. Dance is used to promote social bonding and group cohesiveness.

This makes sense due to the fact that empathy is the embodiment of another’s experience and mirroring the dance and movement of another forces the person mirroring to embody the observed person’s experience. Empathy is multidimensional in that it has cognitive, emotional, and kinesthetic dimensions associated with it. The cognitive dimension of empathy are the thoughts that come along with empathy such as the labeling of emotions and the inference of others mental condition. The emotional aspect of empathy encompasses all of the actual feelings associated with empathy or how another person may make you feel. Finally, the kinesthetic dimension of empathy is the physical embodiment of another person as a result of mirroring them (Behrends et al. 2012). These dimensions of empathy are at work when participating in DMT or when observing another’s actions/emotions.

Concluding remarks

Mirror neurons play a vital role in our lives. They allow us to learn from childhood by observing the actions of others, they allow us to feel empathy towards one another, bring together entire communities by means of dance, and even provide therapeutic approaches to social issues caused by neurological disorders. We have only just begun to understand the potential of this highly specialized set of neurons and future research will continue to uncover the secrets of them that lie within the depths of our minds.

References

Behrends, A., Müller, S., & Dziobek, I. (2012). Moving in and out of synchrony: A concept for a new intervention fostering empathy through interactional movement and dance. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(2), 107–116.

Berrol, C. (2006). Neuroscience Meets Dance/movement Therapy: Mirror Neurons, The Therapeutic Process And Empathy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33(4), 302–315.

Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action Recognition In The Premotor Cortex. Brain, 593–609.

Koch, S., Kunz, T., Lykou, S., Koch, S., Cruz, R., Kunz, T., . . . Cruz, R. (1996). Effects of dance movement therapy and dance on health-related psychological outcomes: A meta-analysis. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 23(3), 46–64.

McGarry, L., & Russo, F. (2011). Mirroring In Dance/Movement Therapy: Potential Mechanisms Behind Empathy Enhancement. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(3), 178–184.

Pierce, L. (2014). The integrative power of dance/movement therapy: Implications for the treatment of dissociation and developmental trauma. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(1), 7–15.

Umiltà, M., Kohler, E., Gallese, V., Fogassi, L., Fadiga, L., Keysers, C., & Rizzolatti, G. (2001). I Know What You Are Doing: A Neurophysiological Study. Neuron, 155–165.

Perri Corsello

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