Ballroom dance training promotes empathy

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Summary: Researchers found both behavioral and neural mechanisms proving that empathy is enhanced with long-term ballroom training.

Source: the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Ballroom dancing 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 continuously 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 of the Department of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has found behavioral and brain mechanisms that prove empathy is enhanced 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, information about art and sports training, and information about romantic relationships were collected. Their traits of empathy, personality, and interpersonal relationships were assessed using the self-reported empathy scale, self-reported personality scale, and self-reported interpersonal scale.

High-resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and resting-state functional MRI images were also collected to reveal the neural correlates of empathy.

This shows a couple dancing
Furthermore, empathic concern was positively correlated with years with dance partners (ie, the number of years the dancer has officially danced with a regular dance partner). The 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 significantly higher scores than controls in empathic concern.

Furthermore, empathic concern was positively correlated with years with dance partners (ie, the number of years the dancer has officially danced with a regular dance partner).

Empathic concern is an other-oriented affective empathy and involves the desire to promote the well-being of others or alleviate their suffering, which is widely considered to be the trait that motivates costly altruism and prosocial behavior.

So how did dance training increase empathic concern in the brain? Analysis of brain structures revealed that the 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 in mediating the relationship between years with dance partners and empathic concern, ie. 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 dancing and empathy and its underlying brain mechanisms based on the structure and function of the ACC, which provides new insights into the enhancement of empathy.

About this empathy research news

Author: Press office
Source: the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Contact: Press Office – Chinese Academy of Science
Picture: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
“The association between ballroom dance training and empathic concern: Behavioral and brain evidence” by Xiao Wu et al. Mapping the human brain

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Abstract

The link between ballroom dance training and empathic concern: Behavioral and brain evidence

Dance is unique in that it is a sport and an art at the same time. In addition to improving sensorimotor functions, dance training can benefit high-level emotional and cognitive functions. Duo dance also allows dancers to develop the skills to recognize, understand and share their dance partners’ thoughts and feelings 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 non-dancers and measured their empathic abilities using a self-report trait empathy scale. We found that ballroom dancers exhibited higher empathic concern (EC) scores 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 findings 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, connectivity between the 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 outcomes was only indirectly mediated by the ACC-occipital gyrus functional connectivity.

Therefore, our results provided solid evidence for the close relationship between long-term ballroom dance training and empathy, deepening our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this phenomenon.

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