Science Ceilidh LIVE: Canadian Brain Dance

It's time for a traditional dance - but this ceilidh is about neurons and brain signals...
24 January 2020

Interview with 

Lewis Hou, Science Ceilidh


A fiddle being bowed.


Now that the drinks have been drunk and the toasts have been toasted, it's time for a traditional Scottish dance, or ‘ceilidh’. Lewis Hou runs an organisation called the Science Ceilidh that adapts these traditional dances to demonstrate science concepts - like the way chemicals move around a cell in a body, or how planets orbit the sun. He prepared something special for Phil Sansom and Chris Smith...

Lewis - It is a strange combination. But if you have been to a Scottish ceilidh dance, you'd know it is not about the dancing ability. It's about that spirit of feeling welcome and I guess as an educator, I was really interested in how do we bring that spirit into science and to culture as well. So you don't need to be an expert to feel you can join in. So I was working in neuroscience and had a ceilidh band at the time, and just wondered could we use, the patterns and the structure of ceilidh dances to actually convey scientific concepts, and then as a way of building connections with diverse communities as well. So linking curriculum, different parts of research to researchers with lots of different people across Scotland.

Phil - Well, I've been to a ceilidh myself and I can also attest to the fact that they're very welcome to people who are completely uncoordinated. But what kind of concepts can you turn from science into a dance?

Lewis - We found a bit of everything. I mean traditional dance is all about stories and actually science is all about stories as well. So we've probably got about, at least 40 science themed dances. It can range from biomedical sciences. So our infamous Orcadian Strip, the helix, for DNA replication, got mathematics of symmetries. We've got chemistry, we've got climate change, sustainability. We've even managed to do something on linear and circular economies. And we've even got a wee bit of physics as well. So we've collaborated with astronomers and looking at the Merry Dancers, for example, Na Fir Chlis in Gaelic, which links the story of the Aurora, the mythology around it with the science of actually how it happens.

Phil - And what's the most complicated dance slash most complicated scientific concept, that you've actually tackled?

Lewis - That's a great question. Och. One of my personal favourites as a neuroscientist has to be the action potential, which also from a dance point of view is quite exciting because it's not just using Scottish dances, but it's using dances from across the world. So we've got a few country dances from America.

Phil - Am I right that that's what I'm going to attempt now today, and you're going to give for our listeners?

Lewis - Absolutely. So tonight we're going to try probably the world's first Ceilidh via radio. We're going to do the Canadian Brain Dance.

Phil - Canadian Brain Dance?

Lewis - It's based on a quite traditional Canadian Barn Dance. Normally it's a partner dance, but I've adapted it so you can even try in the comfort of your own homes if you'd like.

Chris - Well look, Phil's volunteered Lewis. He has got headphones on a cable. So don't send him in too many pirouettes or he's going to get very tangled up. But can you talk us through the moves for both Phil and anyone at home who - and don't do this while you're driving everybody - but for Phil to have a go at.

Lewis - Health warning! So if you imagine yourself now as part of a neuron. So the Canadian Brain Dance is all about how neurons send messages both electrically and chemically. So you're going to be standing up with plenty of space in front of you, hopefully. And imagining you're now about 10-15 microns in the neuron of the brain.

Chris - Okay, Phil is doing his impression of a neuron right now.

Lewis - Very good. Okay. So first off Phil, you're going to go forward, two, three, and then you can hop on the spot. And then you're going to do that again, so you're going to go forward, two, three and hop. So at this point you are representing the electrical signal firing in a neuron. And because the neuron is covered in these fatty coats called the myelin, it allows the electrical signal to actually literally almost hop, meaning it transfers across the neuron much faster.

Chris - Well he's doing it. So you've got him going forward, two, three, hop, forward, two, three, hop. So he's an action potential going down an axon. Now what does he do next?

Lewis - You are then going to twirl. Twirl forward two, three and clap, and then you're gonna go back to your original place.

Chris - It wasn't very a loud clap Phil. You've got to do better than that. That's better. Yeah. Getting into the spirit of the thing.

Lewis - At this point you're at the end of the neuron, and you're releasing the chemical signal into the space in between the neurons, the synaptic cleft. And most people might know these chemicals as neurotransmitters being released.

Chris - So what does he have to do? Is that when he claps? That's the neurotransmitter squirting out? Are you ready Phil, do you want to give it a go?

Phil - I'm ready. Okay. I can give it a go.

Chris - Are you happy

Lewis - Oh Hold on! We've still got a few more moves.

Chris - Quickly then.

Lewis - You'll shuffle forward, forward, and back, and back. So you've got the binding of the neurotransmitter to the receptor. And then finally, if there's enough excitation - and it is a ceilidh after all - then you're going to polka and skip, I'll run through the moves again the first time through the music.

Chris - Alright then. Well let's roll it and let's see how you get on. Are you ready, Phil.

Phil - I'm ready.

Chris - Are you ready Lewis? Let's roll the music.

Lewis - Okay, you're going to go forward two, three, and hop. Forward, two, three, and hop. You'll twirl forwards, two, three, and clap. And back to your place. Forward, and bind. Back, bind. And then you're going to polka, or skip, forwards, two, three, and off you go. And again, electrical signal goes forward. You're going to hop, forward, two, three, hop. Release of the neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft. You're binding to the right receptor. And hopefully if there's enough excitation, the next neuron will start firing. Polka, polka, polka to finish, and cycle again. There you go.

Chris - Well you've certainly impressed everyone this end Lewis. And Phil's worked up a sweat. Did you enjoy that?

Phil - I actually did. I don't think I did very well, but I think I had fun. And I felt like an action potential.

Lewis - That's good!

Chris - There you go. That's a once in a lifetime experience.

You can find out more about the Canadian Brain Dance here.


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