We’ve talked about becoming smarter by having more sex. But, it’s not the only physical activity that can make you more Einstein-esque. Dancing can ward off dementia and improve brain function, too. We’ve addressed how ballroom dancing improves balance in this post, but the benefits of dancing go well beyond improved balance. Dancing improves intelligence.
I saw a recent Facebook post touting the mental benefits associated with dancing referencing a study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine that was funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003.
The study evaluated the effects of leisure activity and the risk of dementia. It enrolled 469 individuals older than 75. The study lasted 21 years with a median follow-up of 5.1 years. The subjects were questioned about their weekly participation in 6 cognitive activities and 11 physical activities.
The 6 cognitive activities were:
- Writing for pleasure
- Doing crossword puzzles
- Playing board games or cards
- Participating in group discussions
- Playing a musical instrument
The 11 physical activities were:
- Playing tennis
- Playing golf
- Participating in group exercises
- Playing team games like bowling
- Walking for exercise
- Climbing more than two flights of stairs
- Doing housework
Some of the results are rather surprising.
- Reading reduced risk of dementia 35%.
- Doing crossword puzzles reduced risk of dementia 47%.
- Frequent dancing reduced risk of dementia 76%
Interestingly, dancing was the only physical activity shown to reduce the risk of dementia.
How Dancing Improves Intelligence
Richard Powers in Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter offers some reasons why dancing may be so effective at reducing dementia.
First, dancing requires integrating several brain functions at once. This includes kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional functions. Thus, dancing requires more neural connections and stimulates the development of such connections. We know that people who are resistant to dementia have a higher degree of cognitive reserve and increased neural connectivity is a key component of having cognitive reserve.
Secondly, Power quotes Piaget who said, “intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do”. I think Piaget’s quote is powerful and may be the best defintion of intelligence I’ve seen. Intelligence goes beyond knowledge. It involves using knowledge to problem-solve and successfully manage uncertainty.
Power suggests that the essence of intelligence is making decisions. Therefore, he proposes that the best way to improve mental acuity is to be involved in activities that require rapid decision-making as opposed to relying on rote memory.
One of the best ways to learn to make decisions – and we have recommended this in other articles – is to learn something new. The more challenging the new activity is and the more rapid-decision making it requires, the more new interneural connections are developed and the more you improve your cognitive reserve.
It just so happens that dancing requires rapid decision-making in both the lead and follow roles of couples dancing especially free-style dancing. Each partner has to read cues from the other. The follower (usually the woman) must interpret her partner’s signals. And, the lead (usually male) should notice how well his partner responds to his movements and adjust them accordingly. And, this is all done consciously and subconsciously. Subtle and not so sublte corrections may be necessary in the middle of a dance. Other forms of dancing requiring decision-making too, but free-style couples dancing is where it is more prominent.
Therefore, dancing with multiple partners who each have different dance patterns will help forge more neural connections than dancing with the same partner consistently.
Thirdly, the center for rhythmic accuracy, which is necessary for dance, is housed in the frontal lobe of the brain – the same area that houses intelligence. Anything that stimulates the frontal lobe has the potential to improve intelligence.
Now you know how dancing makes you more intelligent. Remember, “intelligence is what we use when we do not already know what to do”.
To improve your brain function, dance more and have fun doing it.