Study suggests dancers have an enhanced ‘sixth sense’

Dance training may enhance our “sixth sense.” According to new research, dancers tend to be better than non-dancers at perceiving signals from within their body.

The preliminary study, published in Psychophysiology, found that dancers were more accurate when it came to counting their own heartbeats.

“I’m really interested in how training in dance might not only make us better dancers, but also make us better at other things. For example — better at understanding our own and others’ emotions,” said study author Julia F. Christensen.

“This study is the second study where my colleagues and I from City, University of London, compare a group of dancers to a group of people with no dance experience when they do a psychology task.”

“In the first study, we looked at emotional expertise and found that dancers were better at distinguishing emotions from others’ body language. But not only that! When dancers watched others’ emotional body language their bodies reacted very different from the bodies of the people with no dance experience. We had attached little electrodes (sensors) to the participants’ finger tips and with these we measured how much their fingertips were sweating while they watched happy or sad dance movements.”

“The measurements with such electrodes gives us an index for emotional reactions,” Christensen told PsyPost. “We found that the dancers’ bodies differentiated between watching sad and happy dance, while there was no such difference for the people with no dance experience. It seems that dancers are more emotionally sensitive to others’ body language.”

But the researchers wanted to learn more about why dancers are more emotionally sensitive. That led them to examine interoception — or the attention to internal bodily states. It is sometimes referred to as humans’ sixth sense.

“Recent evidence from neuroscientific experiments shows that our awareness of our body signals such as the heartbeat might also be important for the awareness of our emotions. This process is called ‘interoception’,” Christensen explained.

“There is an actual task to measure how aware a person is. Said in a simple way, you ask the person to silently count their heartbeats for a particular time period. They are not allowed to take their pulse in any way. They have to ‘feel’ it. All the while you also record their actual heartbeat with electrodes on their chest. Then you compare the counted heartbeats with the actual number of heartbeats that you have recorded. You do this several times and this gives you an index (a number) of how sensitive the person is to their own heartbeat.”

The new study compared 20 female ballet dancers to 20 female undergraduate students with no formal dance experience. The researchers found that the dancers were significantly more accurate at counting their heartbeats than the non-dancers.

“People vary as to how aware they are of their heartbeat – but most people are not very good at it. What we found in this study is that dancers were much more sensitive to this interoceptive signal than people with no dance experience.”

Dancers with more experience tended to be more accurate than dancers with less experience.

“Because interoceptive ability is so closely linked to emotional awareness these findings suggest that the body awareness of dancers might also help to develop their emotional awareness,” Christensen said. “This is very important, especially considering that there is also a study with musicians showing higher interoceptive accuracy in this population as well. Might the arts in general enhance interoceptive awareness?”

“We often think of our senses as five (hearing, vision, smell, taste, touch) – while in fact interoception is also a perceptual system, and may be the ’emotional sense’. Our findings suggest that dance training might enhance this sense, fine tune it in some way.”

The study used a cross-sectional design, which prevents the researchers from making conclusions about cause and effect. Dance training could increase interoceptive accuracy or people with higher interoceptive accuracy could be more likely to become dancers.

“Especially two points need further investigation,” Christensen told PsyPost. “We compared a group of people who were already dancing with people who had no dance training. In the future, it would be good to do a training study to find out how interoceptive awareness develops over a training period. Otherwise it will be hard to rule out what came first – egg or hen. Only a training study can shed definite light on the causality.”

“The second thing to investigate is how to harness this emotional sensitivity for the good of the person. This is because there is also evidence to suggest that very high interoceptive awareness is related to anxiety. So it seems to be good to have a heightened interoceptive sense only when we also know what to do with these feelings that we perceive – if we don’t, this might give rise to anxiety.”

“This is not a study showing that dancers are more empathic than others, nor that dancing makes you a better person,” Christensen added. “This study shows that dancers outperform laypeople on a task of interoceptive accuracy. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for the dancers still remains to be firmly established, as also whether or not we can use dance training to scaffold difficulties of people with emotional problems through the sense ‘interoception’.”

The study, “I can feel my heartbeat: Dancers have increased interoceptive accuracy“, was co-authored by Sebastian B. Gaigg and Beatriz Calvo-Merino.