Movement, Orientation, and the Brain

The Mental Mechanics of Motion

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine in Don Quixote from the Library of Congress Archives

by Myya McGregory

George Balanchine, New York City Ballet master choreographer, once said, “see the music, hear the dance,” implying that dance is felt. Anyone who has ever attempted any type of movement that could be considered dance has probably been told to “feel the music” or perhaps “stop thinking and just move,” which can be frustrating, since in order to disconnect one’s brain, it must first be engaged. Learning new movements is not necessarily an easy task. Those who do it well make it look easy, but everyone goes through the same mental mechanics.

Here is where the production of γ-aminobutyric acid or GABA comes in. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is produced from the decarboxylation of glutamate in the brain.

GABA from the NIST database

Levels of GABA in the motor cortex play a large role in the development of our motor function and how we learn movement sequences. Studies in Current Biology by Stagg, Bachtiar and Berg have shown that the degree of motor learning and a decrease in the the magnitude of GABA are positively correlated. That means that the degree of short-term motor learning increases as GABA levels decrease in the motor cortex. As we try to learn motor functions, we engage the cerebellum which produces the enzyme catalyst that helps turn glutamate, the neurotransmitter that excites our neurons and helps us learn, into GABA which in turn inhibits neural activity.

Streeter et al. conducted a subsequent study that pinpoints what type of activity can increase our GABA levels. His team used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to monitor the levels of GABA in two different participant groups. One group was actively engaged in walking for sixty minutes three times a week for twelve weeks. The other group dedicated that same time to yoga. They found that subjects who participated in yoga had higher levels of GABA in the thalamic system overall. Yoga experts experienced a GABA increase of 26%. Those that were yoga beginners experienced a 13% increase. As you try harder to learn, your brain works to help mitigate GABA, but it’s these increased levels of GABA early on that make the initial learning curve the steepest.

GABA, however, is not completely bad, since it also boosts our mood and helps relieve stress. Therefore, the more you know, the more you can relax and in this case enjoy the calming benefits of yoga.

So next time you’re struggling in a dance class (or a yoga or zumba class, or struggling with any movement based activity for that matter), know that it gets better if you just stick with it — the secret’s in the GABA.

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