In the thick of graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Constanza Cortes Rodriguez remembers feeling burnt out. “Nothing was working in the lab, and I was very stressed,” Rodriguez says. That’s when she joined the school’s Ballroom and Latin Dance Association and fell in love with salsa and bachata. She soon found herself practicing nine or more hours a week, flawlessly executing moves on three-inch heels.
Dancing siphoned hours away from her research, and yet Rodriguez, who’s now a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama, quickly realized that it was making her a better scientist. “The time I did spend in [the] lab was so much more efficient; I could feel myself thinking differently and remembering things better.”
Her experience showcases an emerging trend in our understanding of cognitive health: Molecules made by muscles in motion can influence the structure and health of the brain. Scientists used to think that the brain controlled the body, and while the body transmitted signals of sensation back to the brain, the brain was isolated and in charge. But research in the last few years has flipped that notion on its head.