Arousal decrease in Sleeping Beauty: audiences' neurophysiological correlates to watching a narrative dance performance of two-and-a-half hours

Corinne Jola, Frank E. Pollick, Marie-Hélène Grosbras

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24 Citations (Scopus)
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Watching dance is a multisensory experience. In dance, movements are intertwined with music and/or sound, costumes, the narrative, light and stage design. Recent studies have found neuroscientific evidence that a dance audience processes visual and auditory information, while mentally simulating and/or mirroring the movements. In other words, when spectators passively
observe movements, their brain shows enhanced activity in areas that are also activated if they were executing the movements themselves. This paper presents an unusual exemplar of a scientific study in which motor simulation was measured in an emotionally and kinaesthetically loaded real life setting. The study illustrates two main points: 1) real-life conditions matter because they change the results and call into question the validity of laboratory based experimental conditions for research which is making claims about lived experience outside the laboratory and 2) new hypotheses emerged about the
effects that the length of time spent watching dance can have on cortical excitability and action observation responses.The prevalent theory is that this mirroring process is automatic; however, it has been shown to increase with experience. It has been suggested that this mapping of observed movements onto one’s own motor system helps in understanding the intention of the actions. A lot of effort is being put into gaining further insight into the role the mirror neuron system and motor simulation play in emotion regulation. One way of measuring motor simulation is by externally stimulating the motor cortex, which leads to small muscular responses that can be recorded in the form of motor evoked potentials (MEPs).Changes in the size of MEPs are an indirect indicator of the level of motor corticospinal excitability. Even though the equipment to measure cortical excitability is mobile, most neuroscientific studies have been conducted in a laboratory setting that has little in common with real life – in particular a dance audience’s experience in the theatre. Here, we challenged this approach by measuring spectators’ brain responses in the theatre while they were watching a dress rehearsal of a commercial production of Sleeping Beauty, lasting 2.5 hours, performed by the Scottish Ballet. However high the ecological validity of this study, it is a smallscale exploratory and rather playful approach producing data that is not eligible for statistical hypothesis testing. Nevertheless, we provide a specific example of how the factors ‘time’ and ‘individuality’ can affect scientific results in artistic settings if not acknowledged. We observed that the brain responses of our spectators in terms of cortical excitability decreased with time, were strongly individual, and did not conform to prevalent movement simulation hypotheses. The finding that motor
simulation is not automatic during movement observation, has important
implications for the current understanding and research of mirror neuron
activity. A contextual narrative may change the fronto-parietal mirror
mechanism, which implies that previous findings based on controlled laboratory
experiments could not automatically be transferred to real life. Interestingly
though, the retrospectively-reported emotional responses of one spectator partly matched his objective measures of cortical excitability attained during the dance performance. Hence, qualitative responses may be linked to quantitative
responses more than one would expect, while laboratory findings may not be
considered as substitutes for real life situations as previously assumed.
However, this study simply highlights these points for future investigations.
The observation of a decrease of cortical excitability over time could either
indicate subjects’ adaptation to the procedure and the consequent effects of
muscle relaxation; or changes in their emotional and cognitive engagement
when watching dance. In either case, in line with research in dance studies that
highlights the importance of time as a relevant factor in dance performance, this
study shows that time is a relevant factor in measuring spectators’ responses to
watching dance. This will require future attention.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)378-403
Number of pages26
JournalDance Research
Issue numberSuppl.
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011
Externally publishedYes


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