Summary: Researchers found both behavioral and neural mechanism evidence that empathy is promoted with long-term ballroom dancing training.
Source: Chinese Academy of Science
Ballroom dance is a form of art and sport that helps improve sensorimotor skills, cognitive levels and emotional communication.
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 are continually involved in understanding and sharing their partner’s thoughts and feelings—this is what we call empathy.
A research team led by Dr. Hu Li and Dr. Kong Yazhuo from the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has found behavioral and brain mechanism evidence that empathy is promoted with long-term ballroom dance training.
In their 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, self-reported personality scale, and self-reported interpersonal scale.
High-resolution structural magnetic resonance (MRI) images, and resting-state functional MRI images were also collected to reveal the neural correlates of empathy.
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). Image is in the public domain
According to the researchers, among the three subscales of empathy (perspective taking, empathic concern and personal distress), dancers showed significant higher scores than controls in empathic concern.
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 involves the desire to promote others’ well-being or alleviate their suffering, which is widely regarded as the trait that motivates 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 the ACC and the occipital gyrus plays a key role to mediate the relationship between years with dance partners and empathic concern, i.e., the longer dance partners train together, the more engagement between empathy-related brain regions, and eventually more concern for other people develops.
This study reveals 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.
The association between ballroom dance training and empathic concern: Behavioral and brain evidence
Dance is unique in that it is a sport and an art simultaneously. Beyond improving sensorimotor functions, dance training could benefit high-level emotional and cognitive functions. Duo dances also confer the possibility for dancers to develop the abilities to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of their dance partners during the long-term dance training.
To test this possibility, we collected high-resolution structural and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from 43 expert-level ballroom dancers (a model of long-term exposure to duo dance training) and 40 age-matched and sex-matched nondancers, and measured their empathic ability using a self-report trait empathy scale. We found that ballroom dancers showed higher scores of empathic concern (EC) than controls.
The EC scores were positively correlated with years with dance partners but negatively correlated with the number of dance partners for ballroom dancers. These behavioral results were supported by the structural and functional MRI data. Structurally, we observed that the gray matter volumes in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and EC scores were positively correlated.
Functionally, the connectivity between ACC and occipital gyrus was positively correlated with both EC scores and years with dance partners. In addition, the relationship between years with dance partners and EC scores was indirect-only mediated by the ACC-occipital gyrus functional connectivity.
Therefore, our findings provided solid evidence for the close link between long-term ballroom dance training and empathy, which deepens our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this phenomenon.