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Friday, September 22, 2023


Your Brain on Dance: Professors make art from science

Jose Pepe Contraras-Vidal and Becky Valls - Red Square - Photographer - Lynn Lane-22

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal looks at how the arts can influence learning potential and hopes Becky Valls’ brain map will show promising signs. | Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography

Research isn’t always just facts, numbers, data charts and pie graphs. Research can also be art.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal recognizes the diversity of research. With the help of associate professor of theater and dance Becky Valls, he is mapping brain activity while engaging in creative tasks.

“The process (of) creating art, whether (it’s) a performance, a painting or music, leads to innovation,” Contreras-Vidal said.

“With these new machines you’re connecting the dots; you’re looking beyond what you have in your hands. You’re trying to come up with something new using basic building blocks. Creativity and innovation go hand in hand.”

The project, Your Brain on Dance, has led to new findings on how the arts can induce learning potential for those with diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Contreras-Vidal’s project is simple, yet complex: a dancer performs with a brain cast, similar to a swimming cap, on her head. The cast has holes where 64 sensors are placed to listen to the brain. These sensors then capture electrical activity in the brain and record it outside.

A computer recognizes the patterns that relate to different gestures and expressions and is relayed outside in different ways – an alteration to the lights, the music and even the data, which is projected behind the dancer as she performs.

Once the data is all in, it is interpreted.

“We know that dance-movement, is not only moving from point A to B, but it’s about communicating,” Contreras-Vidal said. “If we understand emotions, moves (and) how the brain is affected by interacting with the people in the audience or with the other dancers, we anticipate using arts as a type of therapy with patients of different disorders in terms of communication.”

Valls said she has taught dance as a learning method to teachers at the UH Children’s Learning Center for five years, and that is what peaked her interest in the project.

“If you use creativity to teach science, it increases the learning potential that deepens knowledge,” Valls said. “That is really what Vidal is working with: ‘What is the role of creativity in the brain?’.”

But to Valls, there’s another part to the project.

“What I really like…is the performance element,” Valls said. “It is a visual, technological performance where you are watching the dancer…watching the brain waves change as you watch the movements change. Those two things really intrigued me – the performance aspect of it and the link to neuroscience and how we learn.”

Contreras-Vidal said the technology used to monitor the brain’s activity is an ongoing process, as easier ways to map activity, while not restricting the dancer’s movement, is important.

“The technology has to be light, easy to wear, provide the information (needed) and last for the entire time of the performance,” Contreras-Vidal said. “This (project) is really an intersection of arts, science and engineering.”

Contreras-Vidal has done a similar project before, but he used a painter instead of a dancer. And while his current project will keep performing monthly, he said he is interested in monitoring the brain activity of the Houston Symphony.

“All form of arts are important to my colleagues,” Conteras-Vidal said. “We know that art can provide great benefits to different clinical patients. We want to understand why and we want to see how we can enhance those effects.”

Your Brain on Dance’s next public performance is scheduled for September in the Hines College of Architecture.

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