Author Archives: Irena Kuan

Ballet on the stage and brain

I recently attended a performance of the Swan Lake ballet by the Universal Ballet of Seoul at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. While watching the ballerinas execute perfect pirouettes and fouettes, all I could do was watch in amazement as I remembered my struggle to even do adequate double turns in ballet class. It was not just me either; it seemed that everyone in the audience was just as enthralled at every dizzying turn and every gravity defying leap. When the performance concluded, the applause reverberated around the hall as the principal ballerinas bowed repeatedly. This moment of collective audience admiration made me think of a moment that contrasted dramatically. In Paris of 1913 at the opening performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with an accompanying ballet performance, audience members were so shocked at the strange, stamping movements that they began to riot. While we mainly discussed the auditory elements of the performance in class, it was actually the dance choreography that provoked the scandal (Chua, 2007). I wondered what made people react positively or negatively to dance and whether there was a science behind this.

Graceful and well-balanced ballerinas from Swan Lake


A 2012 neuroimaging study investigated the brain responses to dance that one perceives as aesthetically pleasing vs unpleasing. The images demonstrated that the active engagement of sensorimotor brain areas, which are those covering the primary sensory and motor areas of the brain, is more implicated with observing dance movements perceived as pleasing. This suggested that the motor system plays a role in the appreciation and enjoyment of dance (Cross and Ticini, 2012). This link between motor system and aesthetic perception was further investigated in a 2015 study by Kirsch et al. of how motor familiarity relates to a viewer’s aesthetic appraisal of it. Twenty-two participants were trained for 4 days with difference dance sequences. Every day they had to physically rehearse one set of sequences, just passively watch a second set, listen to the music of the third set, and were unexposed to a fourth set. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, which detects brain activity based on blood flow in areas of the brain, was obtained prior to and directly after training as participants watched videos of dance stimuli videos. They were then asked to aesthetically rate the observed dance (“How much did you like the movement you just watched”) and also to assess their physical ability to reproduce the movement (“How well could you reproduce the movement you just watched?). Results indicated that participants reported increased enjoyment for movements they had themselves physically practiced or even just passively observed for four days. The left superior temporal gyrus (STG), which is important in the interaction of the auditory and motor system, had the most change in activation, suggesting that STG activation may reflect how auditory, visual, and motor experience become associated with each other to produce a more enjoyable experience. These results also suggested that with increased exposure to a movement sequence, whether it be through physical performance or just listening to the soundtrack, people reported greater aesthetic perception of the dance movements (Kirsch et al., 2015).

A potential confounding variable I thought of after reading about this experiment was their use of only hip-hop dance and pop songs. I think the personal feelings people may have regarding this genre of dance and music may influence the degree of activation in the brain. For future directions, I believe that it would be interesting to look into a variety of dance styles and music for greater confidence that results are accurate. As a future direction, I wonder whether they’d be able to stimulate the STG to create greater preference for certain dance movements over others. This would indicate the STG plays a role in creating pleasant experiences linked to watching dance.

Area lit up in image on the left shows the STG where brain activation corresponds to increased liking


This finding of how perception of dance is influenced by what people are exposed to was investigated in another study that looked at how ballet has evolved between the 1960s to 2000s. The same ballet poses were extracted from productions of The Sleeping Beauty and transformed into a standardized form of either stick figures based on principal body segments or quadrilateral shapes which connected the endpoints of each limb. Twelve dance naïve volunteers, meaning without significant experience of performing or attending dance, viewed the stick figure and polygon images and then judged which images they preferred. Results showed that there was a significant tendency for production year and aesthetic evaluation to be correlated, meaning subjects were most likely to prefer the forms from the most recent ballet production possibly due to inadvertent exposure to media within their culture (Daprati et al., 2009).


The standardized forms (B) shown to subjects based on ballerina (A)

All in all, I think that the research into dance preference can serve to inform us about why the audience reacted so vehemently to the performance of Rite of Spring all those years ago; they had never been exposed to such a form of dance before and were not comfortable with how dance was being represented on stage as much of our aesthetic perception comes from what we have seen or been exposed to before. Perhaps this is why as modern performances became more commonplace, the Rite of Spring became an iconic performance that was replicated countless times to audiences that began to applaud instead of riot.




Chua, D.K.L. (2007) Rioting with Stravinsky: a Particular Analysis of the Rite of Spring. Music Analysis, 26, 59-109.

Cross, E.S. & Ticini, L.F. (2012) Neuroaesthetics and beyond: new horizons in applying the science of the brain to the art of dance. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11, 5-16.

Daprati, E., Iosa, M. & Haggard, P. (2009) A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art. PLOS ONE, 4, e5023.

Kirsch, L.P., Dawson, K. & Cross, E.S. (2015) Dance experience sculpts aesthetic perception and related brain circuits. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1337, 130-139.

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Image 2: Kirsch et al., 2015

Image 3: Daprati et al., 2009

L and R: Brain and Politics

Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It’s the music of the yellow vests who shut down subway stops on weekends.

As dedicated as I have been to eating Saturday brunch, the yellow vests (gilets jaunes to the French) have been just as dedicated to convening on Saturday afternoons to protest. The yellow vests are a French populist group mostly made up of members of the working and middle classes who express frustration about slipping standards of living. For the past few months since October 2018, the yellow vests have been showing up every weekend in major Paris locations to protest for lower fuel taxes, redistribution of wealth, an increase in minimum wage, and even the resignation of French President Macron (Diallo, 2018). I remember reading throughout the semester New York Times articles about these protests back when I was in America, and it all seemed very removed from where I was at the time. But now, there is no way to forget when every weekend I receive an email from our study abroad program center about the yellow vests’ path of protest for the weekend and have to track what popular tourist areas will be out of commission for the day. Indeed, Les Mis was not all that misleading. It seems that since the beheading of Queen “Let Them Eat Cake,” the French people have not been able to shake the love of a good revolution or protest from their society. But it is definitely not only the French that enjoy political demonstrations; from 1960s UC Berkeley students to my pink knitted hat compatriots, America has a its own unique history with political movements. I wanted to know – what is it about politics that seems so intrinsic and enticing that people are motivated to come out, rain or shine, to walk around and yell collectively??

major sites of closure yellow vest protests have caused

Part of the reason that being a part of a political movement can be so enthralling is the association with a political party that people flaunt. This gives members of the group a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need involving complex emotions of love, pride, and emotional excitement (Jasper, 2011). In America and many other nations, there is a divide between the liberal left and the conservative right. The ideological labels of “left” and “right” have been around since the time Christian symbolism associated right with “liking for or acceptance of social and religious hierarchies” and the left with “equalization of conditions through the challenge of God and prince.” This fundamental difference in political ideology has remained relatively intact throughout the centuries since then (Jost, 2014). While for many year scientists have assumed political orientation to be solely the result of upbringing and environmental factors, there have recently been studies identifying biological influences on individual’s political attitudes. This field of study falls under neuropolitics, or the study of how neuroscience and political science intersect (Schreiber, 2017).

In a 2011 study that tried to elucidate whether brain structure differences could be linked to political associations, the brain region of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was studied. The ACC has connections to both the “emotional” limbic system” and “cognitive” prefrontal cortex of the brain and is involved with conflict monitoring – the task of detecting conflicts in information processing and then signaling when increased cognitive control must be recruited (Yeung, 2013). The 90 young adult test subjects were first asked to self-report their political attitude on a five-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” Although a simple scale, this self-reported result has been shown to accurately predict voting behavior. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that show detailed images of the brain were then taken of each subject to assess differences in volume of ACC. Results of their scans after controlling for age and gender variables showed that increased gray matter volume in the ACC was significantly associated with liberalism. This hinted that individuals with larger ACC may tolerate uncertainty and conflicts better and allow them to hold more liberal views. The same study also looked at the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotional responses such as fear and aggression, to look for links between gray matter volume of amygdala and political ideology. By evaluating amygdala volume and political attitudes, researchers saw there was an increased amygdala volume associated with conservatism, suggesting that conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression and have a heightened sensitivity to fear (Kanai et al., 2011).

a. Results showing ACC volume in comparison with political ideology
b. Results showing amygdala volume in comparison with political ideology

Of course, the question of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” also applies here: are people more inclined to lean a certain political direction based on biologically predetermined brain differences or do people’s political ideology lead to slight but significant changes in brain structure? I would have been interested to hear if the researchers had any thoughts on this or had long-term data comparing subjects to look for correlations that may have helped answer this question. The researchers also mention a stipulation to their results that abstract reasoning and thinking often requires widespread brain regions and cannot be traced back to one specific brain region. Additionally, a recent review of neuropolitics warns people of the “pathologisation of politics” which essentially chalks up political problems into biological deviations (Altermark & Nyberg, 2018). I think this is especially pertinent as weaponizing neuroscience in order to reduce those you do not agree with is not the purpose of studying the brain. Overall, no matter left or right, remember the brain functions best with both working together!



Altermark, N., Nyberg, L. (2018) Neuro-Problems: Knowing Politics Through the Brain. Culture Unbound, 10, 31-48.

Diallo, R. (2018, December 19). Why are the ‘yellow vests’ protesting in France? Al Jazeera, Retrieved from france-181206083636240.html

Jasper, J.M. (2011) Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research. Annual Review of Sociology, 37, 285-303.

Jost, J.T., Nam, H.H., Amodio, D.M. & Van Bavel, J.J. (2014) Political Neuroscience: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship. Political Psychology, 35, 3-42.

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C. & Rees, G. (2011) Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Curr Biol, 21, 677-680.

Schreiber, D. (2017) Neuropolitics: Twenty years later. Politics and the Life Sciences, 36, 114- 131, 118.

Yeung, N. (2013). Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. In: Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Neuroscience (Ochsner, K. and Kosslyn, S., eds), Oxford University Press (in press).

Image 1: as-yellow-vests-keep-marching

Image 2: Image 3: Kanai et al., 2011

vitamin G for green

After getting off of the train in Avignon and feeling the sun hit my un-sunscreened shoulders, my mood undeniably approved. It was a definite upgrade from the cold and drizzly weather we had just escaped from in Paris. Whether it was the sunshine induced drowsiness or the gelato produced lethargy, I seemed to move at a much slower and relaxed pace this weekend. I often find myself hustling to get from departure point to destination during the week, sighing impatiently at the slow walkers leisurely strolling on the sidewalk who have the audacity to slow me down.  In Provence, I didn’t feel the need to obsessively make schedules and instead just enjoyed the new surroundings.

The southern France, creek wading Irena is definitely much more carefree and relaxed than urban Paris, coffee chugging Irena.

I thought back to our journal topics about Van Gogh and his mental health and remembered how the film we watched had portrayed his mood. Van Gogh had written about the countryside in Arles and how it had improved his spirit (up until that whole ear incident). Van Gogh talked about how much time he was spending outside and how productive his work output was during the time he could paint en plein air. I think this is something that we can all relate to; the first day of being outside in the warmth and sunshine after weeks of winter stuck inside avoiding the Atlanta rain can make me feel like I escaped something just shy of seasonal affective disorder. Well besides you and me, it seems that others have been onto this phenomenon for a while now too. In fact, the term “ecotherapy” has been coined as “an umbrella term for a gathering of techniques and practices that lead to circles of mutual healing between the human mind and the natural world from which it evolved”  (Chalquist, 2009).

Courtyard garden in an Arles hospital where Van Gogh stayed briefly and his painting of it

It has been documented that merely looking at nature or natural elements can provide restoration from stress and mental fatigue while reducing feelings of anger, frustration and aggression. This has indicated that the “aesthetic experience of nature” can play a beneficial role in affecting mood (Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006). Some studies utilize the visual sensory system in order to test the effects of nature images on neural processing and well-being; however, the experience of nature cannot be reduced to singular modalities but rather is holistic and encompasses all the sensory systems in the body. Therefore, many of the studies that I looked at examined and quantified aspects of well-being that are harder to measure. A study of 57 people with serious and persistent mental illness was conducted where they participated in an outdoor adventure program involving weekly full day outings for 9 weeks. At the end of the study, there were statistically significant increases on the Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (a 10-item psychometric scale that assesses optimistic self-beliefs to cope with a variety of difficult demands in life) in the experiment group compared to the control group that did not undergo outdoor exposure. The experimental group also showed significant reductions in scores on the Anxiety and Depression subscales of the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), a test that evaluates psychological distress and psychiatric disorders. Patients with affective or schizoaffective disorders, mental health disorders we discussed Van Gogh having the possibility of having, showed an increase in scores on the Trust and Cooperation Scale, and decreased BSI Hostility and Interpersonal Sensitivity (Kelley, Coursey, & Selby, 1997).

General mechanisms to explain relationships between green space and health, well-being, and social safety

In a 2010 meta-analysis (a statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies) that analyzed 10 UK studies of environment and health that involved over 1252 participants, every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood with the presence of water generating greater effects. Outcomes were identified through a subgroup analyses, and dose-responses were assessed for exercise intensity and exposure duration. Based on this meta-analysis, the mentally ill showed one of the greatest self-esteem improvements based on exposure to green environments and nature (Barton & Pretty, 2010).

The number of participants, activity types, environments, and cohorts from each study from the meta-analysis  

Ecotherapy studies have also begun a foray into a crossover intervention with art therapy, as both approaches have research supporting their success in the reduction of physiological and psychological symptoms associated with a variety of diagnoses in numerous settings. While a statistically significant correlation between ecotherapy and art therapy has not yet been found, there are many qualitative and case-study research designs that demonstrate the effectiveness of art and eco-therapy interventions (Bessone, 2019).

This weekend in Arles, we saw the various locations around town that Van Gogh drew inspiration from for his paintings, making it quite evident that he was closely connected with his environment. While eco/art therapy are no substitutes for comprehensive mental health care, I hope that Van Gogh was able to find temporary reprieve in his artistic work and the natural beauty of southern France during his time there.

Landscape picture of Arles, France



Barton, J. & Pretty, J. (2010) What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving

Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 3947-3955.

Bessone, E. (2019) Implications and Applications of Eco-Therapy on Art Therapy. Expressive Therapies Capstone Theses. 155.

Chalquist, C. (2009) A Look at the Ecotherapy Research Evidence. Ecopsychology, 1, 64-74.

Groenewegen, P.P., van den Berg, A.E., de Vries, S. & Verheij, R.A. (2006) Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being, and social safety. BMC Public Health, 6, 149.

Kelley, M. P., Coursey, R. D., & Selby, P. M. (1997). Therapeutic adventures outdoors: A demonstration of benefits for people with mental illness. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 20(4), 61-73.

Image 1: my own picture

Image 2: from

Image 3: from Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006.

Image 4: from Barton & Pretty, 2010

Image 5: from


bottoms up! cognition down?

drinking but make it ~~patriotic~~

Walking around the city of Paris, it is hard to miss the fact that we are in a country submerged in a long, liquid history with wine and a current population dedicated to upholding this wine drinking culture.  “For many individuals, drinking wine has become an identity-building process by which they become part of a new form of civil community constructed around a nostalgic view of a rural and authentic France” (Demossier, 2010, p. 13). Apparently, the French are quite a nostalgic bunch then, and at all times of the day. Whether it’s with a well-plated charcuterie board, a medium rare steak, or sans any food in front of them, I cannot recall a time when I did not walk through a Paris street without seeing anyone sitting outside at a café terrace without a glass of wine accompanying them.

a typical scene of Parisian merriment

As a nation with casual drinking during meals ingrained into the collective psyche, I was interested in seeing whether this difference in mentality would manifest in a difference in drinking habits – binge drinking in particular – among the young people of France and America. Binge drinking (BD) is typically defined as heavy alcohol use of four or five drinks over a short period of time. From 2009 to 2013, the prevalence of those partaking in BD among university students in France was about 30% in the period of a month (Tavolacci et al., 2016). During this same period of time, the percent of 18-22-year-olds in America binge drinking within a month wavered around 40% (White and Hingson, 2014). The underlying factors leading to the prominence of binge drinking is a bottle to be uncorked another time, but today I will be looking into the effects of binge drinking on cognitive function in young people.

We’ve all seen the short-term side effects of binge drinking – in fact I think I saw some of it walking around the Bastille area of Paris one day after dinner – but what about the unseen and long-term effects in the brain? As binge drinking is usually associated with those of college age whose primary occupation is often school, I wanted to see how much researchers know about what is happening to a brain and its function with frequent alcohol use.

In a 2009 study, 42 binge drinkers and 53 controls from between age 18-20 were tested. Scalp electrodes were used to measure event-related potentials (ERPs), which are measured brain responses that are a result of a specific sensory, cognitive, or motor event and a way to evaluate brain function. Subjects were asked to perform a visual working memory task, a task where visual information must be remembered and manipulated quickly when prompted, and then the components of their ERPs were compared. The results indicated that there was the presence of an electrophysiological difference between the binge drinker and the control group, and that higher levels of attentional efforts were required from the binge drinking group to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information to effectively process working memory (Crego et al., 2009).


an example of the components of what an ERP may look like based on electrode measurements


Another study in 2011 tested 40 binge drinkers (13 females, 27 males) and 55 controls (24 females, 31 males) between the ages of 16 to 19. Researchers conducted neuropsychological testing, substance use interviews, and a spatial working memory (SWM) task, which requires retention and manipulation of visuospatial information, during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Links between BD status and gender were found in brain regions spanning the bilateral frontal, anterior cingulate, temporal, and cerebellar cortices. In all regions, female binge drinkers showed less SWM activation than female controls; however, male binge drinkers actually showed greater activation of SWM which linked to better spatial performance (Squeglia et al., 2011). The results of this study seemed to indicate that females may be more vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of binge drinking during adolescence, while male brains may be more resilient to the harmful effects of binge drinking (where does the male privilege end??).

an example of a simple spatial working memory task

While ERPs and SWM are ways to assess brain function, I believe they can’t fully encompass cognitive performance, which synthesizes aspects of memory, attention, and reasoning. Overall, I believe the exact effects of binge drinking on the human adolescent brain will always be difficult to elucidate because of the many confounding factors that cannot be controlled for in correlational studies. However, this does not mean that this topic should be any less deserving of research because of the important implications the results can have for adolescents around the world and their brain health. For now, perhaps we should all follow the example of the Parisians and enjoy in moderation. Cheers for now!



Crego A, Rodriguez-HolguõÂn S, Parada M, Mota N, Corral M, Cadaveira F.(2009). Binge drinking affects attentional and visual working memory processing in young university students. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 33(11):1870–9. 10.1111

Demossier, M. (2010). Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion? (French and francophone studies) (p. 13). Retrieved from

Marie-Pierre Tavolacci, Eloïse Boerg, Laure Richard, Gilles Meyrignac, Pierre

Dechelotte, et al., (2016) Prevalence of binge drinking and associated behaviours among 3286 college students in France. BMC Public Health, BioMed Central, 16, pp.178.

Squeglia, L.M., Schweinsburg, A.D., Pulido, C. & Tapert, S.F. (2011) Adolescent Binge

Drinking Linked to Abnormal Spatial Working Memory Brain Activation: Differential Gender Effects. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35, 1831-1841.

White, A. & Hingson, R. (2014) The burden of alcohol use: excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences among college students. Alcohol Res, 35, 201-218.

Image 1: from Demossier (2010) p. 10

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