The Reason These PokéMon Are Great Dancers, According to Science

August 24th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Over the past several days, a delightful pair of dancing Pokémon have made their way around Twitter.

The Pokémon reportedly originated on Reddit and have since shimmied to a variety of numbers, yet, no matter the tune, they always seem to impeccably follow the beat.

One Twitter user remarked that their routine "fit perfectly" to Ariana Grande's "Into You," but as Deadspin pointed out, their moves are equally suited to a Kid Rock song, Santana's "Smooth," and “Butterfly” by Crazy Town.

Though the rise of Pokémon Go likely contributed to this social media sensation, scientific research on how humans perceive rhythm suggests another reason why these videos are so captivating.

The dancing Pokémon trend is not the first of its kind.

A similar, popularized dancing Spiderman meme reported by Radiolab in 2013 helps explain the phenomenon behind these trends.

Here's one version of the meme.

In conversation with Radiolab, Michigan State University Cognitive Science Program Director Devin McAuley, Ph.D., said the Spiderman GIF's knack for keeping the beat made sense "from a cognitive science perspective."

"Dancing Spiderman highlights the extent to which our perceptions can be constructed," McAuley explained.

"We have a tendency to pay more attention to events that are synchronous than asynchronous events, so this would bias our attention to time points that provide evidence for Spiderman dancing synchronously with the music," he added.

The animation serves as an example of how "auditory rhythms can drive visual rhythm perception, especially when the visual stimuli are continuous, affording a lot of flexibility with where beats are aligned in the cycle," according to McAuley.

He also said the structure of the superhero's movements and the brevity of the clip could make our brains perceive the dance as especially skillfull.

"The movements of Dancing Spiderman, like movements in most dance, are hierarchically structured," says McAuley. In other words, dance routines are typically constructed to conform to certain recognizable patterns.


"There are a range of phases within each movement cycle [where] one could reasonably place/perceive the onset of a beat," he said.

So while your brain may jump in and "make" these animations appear to dance well, this might not be the case if their movements were more spastic or esoterically structured.

Some Twitter users have already linked the Pokémon to this earlier meme.

A 2014 study published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience that delved into the evolutionary neuroscience behind how we perceive beats in music also provides some insight.

We aren't just passive music listeners, the study authors asserted. Our brains manipulate how we hear sound and perceive the beats of songs.

From Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience:

"Behavioral evidence suggests that beat perception involves more than the passive entrainment of neural responses to sound. This evidence concerns the fact that the beat imposed on a given sound can be consciously altered by the listener, and this manipulation can radically reshape how that sound is heard. Thus, beat perception is not merely the 'discovery' of periodicity in complex sounds, but is more active and under voluntary control, and provides an internal temporal reference that shapes rhythm perception."

Dialing back to the dancing Pokémon and the Spidermen that predated them, these theories suggest that watching the characters dance shapes how we hear the music they're dancing to.

So their choreography appears well-matched to a variety of songs, none of which the dance moves have actually been created for specifically. (But don't let that take away any of the magic.)

This meme also reflects how human beings perceive other parts of life.

Psychologists often describe humans as "cognitive misers," Science of Us explains. In other words, we interpret information by exerting as little mental energy as possible, comprehending small bits of information by relating them to recognizable patterns that require little new mental work. This comes into play in terms of first impressions and "gut feelings."

"If the only real information you have about someone is that you saw them cry, then there’s a decent chance they are a naturally sad or weepy person, and our brains are content to leave it at that," Science of Us points out.

Just as you're psychologically likely to perceive movements as "following the beat," your perceptions of other people tend to look to familiar patterns rather than seeking evidence suggesting these patterns don't fit.

[h/t Deadspin]