Ballet dancers’ brains adapt to stop them going dizzy

Years of training in “spotting”, the technique of quickly and repeatedly bringing your gaze to two specific points in front and behind you, certainly helps, but new research suggests that the brain’s ability to adapt plays a powerful role.

If you’ve ever tried spinning in circles while looking up to the sky, you’ll know the accompanying dizziness that can follow. But what stops ballet dancers, who pirouette endlessly for a living, from falling into each other like a set of dominoes?

Years of training in “spotting”, the technique of quickly and repeatedly bringing your gaze to two specific points in front and behind you, certainly helps, but new research suggests that the brain’s ability to adapt plays a powerful role. And it could help better treat and diagnose people who suffer from chronic dizziness.

Neuroscientists at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and spun them around in a chair in a dark room. When the chair was stopped, the dancers were asked to turn a lever to indicate how quickly they still felt they were spinning. This measured their perception response to dizziness. Eye reflexes – the quick flicking of the eyes from moving around rapidly – were also measured. In normal people, these two responses correlate well, but in the dancers there appeared to be an uncoupling: while their eye reflexes kept going, their perception response fell.

A group of 20 female rowers, who were similar in age and fitness, were also recruited as a control group. Brain scans were then taken to analyse the brain structures of all the individuals.

Powerful resistance

In cases of chronic dizziness, tests are usually taken of the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled organs use tiny hairs to sense the movement of the fluid, which in turn send signals to the brain. The continued movement of fluid explains one of the reasons you can continue to feel dizzy after you’ve stopped moving. But this doesn’t go far enough to explain dizziness in chronic suffers, said Barry Seemungal, co-author of the study, published in Cerebral Cortex.

“We measured sensation perception and eye reflexes and found dancers were much more resistant to non-dancers,” he said. “In the rowers, sensation correlated very well to reflexes, but in dancers the two were not correlated – they had de-coupled. In a person with chronic dizziness, the duration of their perceptual response is much longer; there’s a disproportionately higher reaction compared to a dancer who shows powerful resistance.”

An MRI scan then looked at the amount of grey matter (the bit that calculates) and the white matter (the part of the brain that makes connections) in the cerebellum. This also threw up differences between dancers and non-dancers.

“A statistical comparison between brain structures showed that in dancers an area of the cerebellum was smaller than in the rowers. This part of the brain also known to be involved in processing signals from the ear. And the more experienced the dancer, the smaller it is. The cerebellum can process signals that are then sent to areas of the brain linked to perception. In dancers it reduces the flow of signals – it acts like a gate.”

The researchers then looked at the cerebral cortex, which is associated in perception, and found stronger white matter in the control group. “More white matter means you’re more likely to be dizzy – in dancers we didn’t see it,” Seemungal said.

Seeing is believing

So how can these findings help people with chronic dizziness? For a start, we now have recognition that the brain is the organ that controls balance and, crucially, that it’s able to adapt.

“Traditional testing considers the ear as the organ of balance,” Seemungal said. “I’m a neurologist so I consider it as the brain.”

“The brain takes in lots of different information to make an assessment and compensates if it needs to. The ear is one source, vision is another. If you hear a noise to the right and move your head to look at it, your brain combines the estimates and places greater weight on the more reliable, in this case the eye.”

“But vision can be ambiguous – for example when you’re sat on a train and another one moves and you think you’re the one moving. As a general principle the brain prioritises visual motion over vestibular organs [the ear]. Another example is the ventriloquist’s doll, it combines the auditory and visual inputs but relies more on the visual so you think it’s the doll that’s talking.”

“If your vestibular organs aren’t working well, your brain won’t trust them and even trivial visual stimuli can trigger a dizzy sensation. But traditional testing relies on testing the vestibular organs, which might indicate nothing is wrong.”

People with chronic dizziness can be treated for underlying causes but also longer-term physio treatment. Depending on the form of the condition, this can include exposing them to self-motion (the swaying we all do but don’t notice if we don’t suffer from dizziness) and visual motion to get the brain more habituated.

One lucky find (for the researchers anyway) was that one of the dancers involved in the study later went on to develop chronic dizziness. This enabled the team to test her against their original findings. They found that although her reflex functions had remained the same, her perception response had become stronger.

Professor Nicky Clayton, a Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge and Scientist in Residence at Rambert, the contemporary dance company, said: “As a dancer you learn tricks that allow your body to move in very flamboyant ways but without losing control. One of the tricks I learned was that when you get that sense of spinning, you use your core muscles to pull up; and that you’re disengaging with that feeling of fluidity and creating a stabilising energy.

She added: “Dancers think in very abstract ways … The way in which the brain talks to the cognitive system, whether through its plasticity or psychologically, is more than just spotting. Spotting helps you to focus but it’s not the only thing.”

Simon Lloyd, an ENT specialist, said: “The tests could potentially be useful because at the moment we have no effective way of testing how well parts of the balance system within the brain are working. Testing this would also allow us to measure how people are responding to treatment.”

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dancers of Cuba national ballet perform during a rehearsal for Swan Lake in Madrid in 2009. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Jo Adetunji is the commissioning editor for health and medicine at The Conversation UK.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser