Ballroom dance is an intoxicating form of art and sport. We could benefit from it for our sensorimotor skills, cognitive levels, and emotional communications. The emotions expressed in ballroom dance along with the passionate music and intense movements provide an immersive environment for viewers to indulge with dancers. At the same time, to achieve high-level performance, dancers need to collaborate, imitate, and actively interact with their dance partners through long-term training. In this way, they would be long-term involved with understanding and share partner's thoughts and feelings – in other words, this is what we call: empathy.
Led by Dr. HU Li and Dr. KONG Yazhuo from the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, a research team indeed found behavioral and brain mechanism evidence that empathy would be promoted with long-term ballroom dance training.
In this exploratory study, 43 professional ballroom dancers and 40 age- and sex-matched controls were recruited from Beijing Sport University. During the experiment, participants’ demographic information, art and sport training information, and romantic relationship information were collected. Their trait empathy, personality and interpersonal relationship were assessed using self-reported empathy scale (Interpersonal Reactivity Index; IRI), self-reported personality Scale (Big 5 Inventory-2), and self-reported interpersonal scale (Questionnaire of Interpersonal Competence). High-resolution structural magnetic resonance (MRI) images, and resting-state functional MRI images were also collected to reveal the neural correlates of empathy.
Among the three subscales of empathy (Perspective Taking, Empathic Concern and Personal Distress), dancers showed significant higher scores than controls in Empathic Concern (Figure a). Furthermore, the empathic concern was positively correlated with Years with Dance Partners (i.e., the number of years that the dancer has officially danced with a fixed dance partner). Empathic Concern is an other-oriented affective empathy and the desire to promote others’ well-being or alleviate their suffering, which is widely regarded as the trait to motivate costly altruism and prosocial behavior.
So how did dance training enhance empathic concern in the brain? Analysis of brain structures revealed that gray matter volume of the subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) was significantly associated with Empathic Concern and Years with Dance Partners. Most importantly the functional coupling between ACC and occipital gyrus plays a key role to mediate the relationship between Years with Dance Partners and Empathic Concern (Figure b), i.e., the longer dance partners train together, the more engaged between empathy-related brain regions, and eventually the more they concern other people.
This study discovered the close relationship between long-term ballroom dance and empathy, and its underlying brain mechanisms based on the structure and function of the ACC, which provides novel insights into the improvement of empathy.
It is human nature to sympathize and help others. However, this nature of empathy is often ignored by us in nowadays. So, shall we dance?
This work entitled “The association between ballroom dance training and empathic concern: behavioral and brain evidence” was published in the Human Brain Mapping on Aug 16 2022, and funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Figure 1. Group difference in EC scores, EC scores positively correlated with Years with Dance Partners, and negatively correlated with Number of Partners. Image by WU Xiao.
Figure 2. FC between ACC and occipital gyrus indirect-only mediated relationships between Years with Dance Partners and EC scores.Image by WU Xiao.
Institute of Psychology
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing 100101, China.