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Local Brain Scientist Collaborating with Dance Instructor to Study Neuroscience

The head of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla -- Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman -- is the author of a new book. It’s called “Second Nature: The Brain and Human Knowledge.” In it, Edelman expla

Local Brain Scientist Collaborating with Dance Instructor to Study Neuroscience

The head of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla -- Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman -- is the author of a new book. It’s called “Second Nature: The Brain and Human Knowledge.” In it, Edelman explains his philosophy about how our brains give rise to knowledge and creativity. Edelman is an accomplished violinist and a big supporter of the arts. In fact, his institute is known for hosting performers, artists and lecturers. Marjorie Sun filed this report on a new collaboration between the brain scientist and a dance instructor. 

In a studio at Bennington College in Vermont, Susan Sgorbati, a trim woman with dark, curly hair, oversees a dance rehearsal. Dancer Katie Martin bends and turns as percussionist Jake Maginsky strikes a gong. They’re improvising a duet. Sgorbati coaches them.  


Sgorgati: OK, this might be a good place to stop.   

For more than 20 years, Sgorbati’s been teaching improvisational dance at Bennington. Sgorbati’s been curious how and why the intricate interaction and organization among improv dancers evolve. Then a couple of years ago, Sgorbati stumbled upon some intriguing scientific theories about the brain.    She read a book co-authored by Dr. Gerald Edelman called “A Universe of Consciousness.” 

Sgorbati: And when I was introduced to this book, it was a total revelation to me, Some of the ideas that I thought were visionary I was able to understand because these ideas really related to the dance improvisation work that I’d been observing in my dance studio for the last 20 years. So that was very, very exciting. 

Sgorbati, who readily admits she’s a novice in science, got a chance to delve into this deeper with Edelman firsthand. She became an artist in residence at the Neurosciences Institute -- a non-profit research center in La Jolla. One of Edelman’s scientific theories that captured her interest is that the human brain is an improvisational system--like her dances.

Sgorbati: That was something completely new to me -- that in the brain, there was no central command telling it what to do.

Instead, Edelman says, the brain is constantly perceiving patterns and creating new patterns based on information pouring in through our eyes, ears, and other senses. Our cortex alone -- the wrinkled structure of the brain--has at least 30 billion nerve cells and a million billion connections of synapses. Edelman says the number of possibilities for connection patterns by far surpasses the Internet.       

Edelman: The brain is not a digital computer. It is, in fact, if anything, a pattern-recognizing device. You might say it this way -- that to some degree, every perception is an act of creation. So we start with a kind of metaphor and that’s where Susan is coming in. She’s making a kind of metaphor for what is actually happening in the brain. They aren’t identical but they’re similar in certain kinds of patterns.

So when Sgorbati’s dancers create a piece, patterns emerge as they decide when and how to, say, curve an arm, spin, or leap. Sgorbati’s also inspired artistically by Edelman’s hypothesis about memory. Edelman contends certain kinds of memories are not fixed, but are shaped by the context in which they’re recalled.  Here’s how Edelman explains it: Think of a glacier and how it changes with the weather. As a glacier melts and refreezes again and again, different streams are created. Like paths of neurons. Various paths or streams may be created but they all usually lead to a similar memory.    


Edelman’s theory on memory prompted Sgorbati to create a new dance in his honor. Her ensemble performed it at the Institute earlier this year where it got a warm reception. Edelman marvels over Sgorbati’s dancers and the scientific questions they raise. 

Edelman: Now if you ask me the question of what goes on in Susan’s brain, in her dancers’ brains, it’s the most intricate set of movements and sensations. The interesting thing is that if someone asked me what is the most penetrating and unresolved problem of modern neuroscience, I would say motor control, the very thing that Susan indulges in. Namely, how is it we can even wiggle our finger? What has that got to do with will? What has that got to do with sensation?  

Scientists at the Neurosciences Institute and elsewhere across the country are exploring these questions.

Back at Bennington College, musician Jake Maginsky and dancer Katie Martin polish their improvisational duet. Sgorbati’s been inviting scientists to visit dance rehearsals like this to continue a dialogue with them.

Sgorbati: To have scientists come into the studio was something I could never have predicted five or 10 years ago. Never. Or that I could have had conversations with them and understood what the ideas were about.

Sgorbati says she’s beginning to read another book on the brain by Edelman in hopes that it too will inspire new dances that speak to our emotions as well as our minds. For KPBS, I’m Marjorie Sun.