STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now we have news of a surprising benefit of dancing. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, I don't know if you are a noted dancer or not. Shankar, are you?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I am a noted dancer for being absolutely terrible on the dance floor, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, but in any case, you can do good research on dancing. What is this research?
VEDANTAM: Psychology researchers at the University of Oxford recently published a study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. They brought volunteers into a lab and taught them different dance moves. They then placed the volunteers in groups of four on the dance floor and put headphones on them so they could hear music.
Some of them were taught the same dance moves, and others were taught different dance moves. Before and after the volunteers danced to music, the researchers measured their pain threshold by squeezing their arms...
VEDANTAM: ...With a blood pressure cuff.
INSKEEP: So the question is how tolerant are you to pain, in other words.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. That's exactly right. And what the researchers found is there were huge differences in pain perception before and after the volunteers danced together.
INSKEEP: I want to break this down because you saying there are people who are dancing in coordination with the people around them...
INSKEEP: ...And others who are dancing completely by themselves, even though other people may be right there in the room.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. So when the volunteers were taught the same dance moves and heard the same songs as the others, their movements synchronized on the dance floor. Now, afterwards, these volunteers were able to withstand significantly more pain. Their threshold for pain increased.
By contrast, the volunteers who heard different songs or were taught different dance moves to the same music didn't synchronize their movements. These volunteers experienced either no change in their pain perception or an increase in their pain perception. They actually felt more pain than they did before.
INSKEEP: What is going on there?
VEDANTAM: Well, here's what the researchers think is going on. When experiences feel good, that's usually a signal that they have served some kind of evolutionary purpose. So the brain evolved to find certain kinds of food tasty because it eating those foods had survival value for our ancestors.
As a social species, being part of a group has survival value. Evolution also may have adapted the brain to experience a sense of reward when we did things with and for other people. Dancing together, especially in the synchrony, can signal that you are actually simpatico with lots of other people. The researchers think this is why so many cultures have synchronized dancing and why it might have health benefits.
INSKEEP: So it's not just that I'm loosening my muscles by moving around 'cause if I do that alone, it doesn't help me. But doing it with other people I feel good. It overrides any sensations happened I might have that are bad.
VEDANTAM: That's right. So the volunteers had headphones. And so they were listening to songs without knowing what songs others were listening to. It's only when they were listening to same song and dancing in the same way and they watched other people doing that that the health benefits kicked in.
INSKEEP: Shankar, it's been fun dancing with you.
VEDANTAM: I feel less pain already, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's great. NPR's Shankar Vedantam, our social science correspondent and host of the new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.