National Ballet of Canada dancers rehearsing. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A recent study suggests that dancers are more emotionally sensitive than the rest of us. The results may also point to a role the arts can play in empathy training.

In the study, published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, brief video clips of ballet dancing were shown to two groups of people: professional ballet dancers, and a control group of those with no dance experience. The clips were silent, black-and-white, and just a few seconds long, and the dancers’ faces were blurred, so no facial expression was visible. With no context to go by other than the shapes of the moving bodies, participants were asked to rate their emotional response, whether they liked or disliked the moves, or found them to be happy or sad.

The participants wore electrodes on the tips of their fingers to detect the subtle sweat response triggered by an emotional reaction.

Both groups “read” the emotions of the ballet clips correctly. But in their automatic sweat response and in the way they rated the moves, the dancers had much stronger reactions to the emotional content.

“The very cool thing about this study is that the dancers not only recognized the emotions better, but their bodies would also respond more sensitively to the displayed emotional movements,” says Julia F. Christensen, a research fellow in the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit at City University London, and lead author of the study. “Dancers’ bodies differentiated between different emotions that were expressed in the clips, where the controls didn’t.”

Intuitively, this is what we’d expect from those with expertise in what they’re looking at. That is exactly the point, Christensen says: The evidence suggests that training in the physical expressions made the dancers more sensitive to them. And this indicates an interesting possibility, that the neurocognitive mechanisms that make people more sensitive can be trained.

Christensen, a serious dance student before injury forced her to stop, believes that her research shows “why everyone should dance. Our research indicates that dance training might be a way to make you more aware of emotions.”

“You could even hypothesize that dance makes you more empathetic,” she says, “because it seems that you learn to react automatically and more sensitively to others’ expressions.” But this still needs to be tested, she adds.

Could it be enough to watch dance, to develop greater emotional sensitivity? Or must one train as a dancer? “That is the empirical question,” says Christensen. “Is empathy a muscle that you have to train? We don’t know. There are empirical reasons to believe that training could be an option. But as scientists we are not allowed to be believers; we have to be doubters. We have to test every possible thing.”

“General empathy training programs are not showing results yet, maybe because the mechanism by which the enhancement would happen is not really understood,” she says. Activities such as yoga and meditation “have some effects, but it’s hard to produce them reliably.” In any case, the evidence in her studies “suggests an intriguing potential of dance.”