Home » Rigor and RelevanceSpring 2012

Dance the Plight Away

by Anna Williams No Comment

In the Middle Ages, people who felt disconnected from their own bodies would probably have been subject to exorcism. Today, modern medicine prescribes pills to banish such sensations from patients’ brains. Research led by Sohee Park, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology, sheds new light on this common symptom of schizo-phrenia and suggests that patients may benefit from an alternative type of treatment—dance.

Park, along with doctoral candidate Katharine Thakkar, MA’08, and research analysts Heathman Nichols, BA’10, and Lindsey Gilling McIntosh, BA’11, measured schizophrenics’ deficient sense of body ownership by employing a procedure known as the rubber hand illusion. The researchers placed a rubber hand in front of each subject while hiding one of the subject’s own hands from view. As researchers stroked each hand simultaneously, subjects were asked to estimate the position of their hidden hand using a ruler atop the device hiding it.

Rubber hand illusion

“After a while, patients with schizophrenia begin to ‘feel’ the rubber hand and disown their own hand. They also experience their real hand as closer to the rubber hand,” Park explains. “Healthy people get this illusion too, but weakly. Some don’t get it at all.” The susceptibility of schizophrenia patients to the rubber hand illusion suggests that they have a more flexible body representation and weakened sense of self compared to healthy people.

The findings may mean that movement therapy, which trains people to be focused and centered on their own bodies via some forms of yoga and dance, might help some of the more than 2.2 million people diagnosed with the mental disorder. “Exercise is inexpensive and obviously has a broad range of beneficial effects, so if it can also reduce the severity of schizophrenia, it is all to the good,” Park says.

She says that, decades ago, schizophrenics’ weakened body awareness was considered “[one of] the core features of schizophrenia…but in recent years much of the emphasis has been on cognitive functions.” This research, published in Public Library of Science ONE, brings the body back into the mind of the psychological community. It also may offer schizophrenia patients the age-old solution for mind-body disconnection put forth by Lady Gaga in 2008: “just dance.”

photo credit: John Russell

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