WARBURTON, 2013. Re-languaging embodiment in dance phenomenology and cognition


WARBURTON, Edward C. Re-languaging embodiment in dance phenomenology and cognition. Pós: Revista do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Artes da EBA/UFMG, v.3, n.5, p. 151-179, 2013.


RESUMO: Este artigo questiona o papel da fenomenologia como cognição corporifcada e sugere outro modo de nomear o já muito usado e problemático termo corporifcado. Defendo uma psicologia da dança compreendida como dança enação, e coloco a enação numa relação dinâmica com o tema da empatia cinestésica.  p.153


  • Human beings can bond together through rhythmical movement and expressions like joy, and dance is fundamentally about making those connections: to self, to others, to the world and beyond. p.154
  • In fact, considerable interdisciplinary attention has been given to the study of dance as a unique window on human knowledge and experience.  p.154
  • Phenomenology is essentially a philosophical argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding and engaging with the world. p.154
  • Contemporaneous to Husserl was the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget (1936/1952), which emphasized the emergence of cognitive abilities out of sensorimotor skills. p.154
  • Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment makes the physical (somatic) being the site of the psyche. the body determines what shows up in our world. the ecological psychology of J.J. Gibson (1979) deepened this insight by seeing the characteristics of the human world, e.g., what affords walking on, picking up, etc. as correlative with our bodily capacities and acquired skills. by embodiment, Merleau-Ponty indicates three ways that the body opens up a world — as innate structures, basic general skills and cultural skills:  p.155
  • the body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests  through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits [sic] such as dancing. Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world (MERLEAU-PNTY, 1962, 146). p.155
  • Simply put, the embodiment thesis holds that “mental activity depends essentially not just on the brain but on the body as well” (Legrand, Grünbaum, and Krueger 2009, 279). Embodiment is nowadays by many cognitive researchers considered a condito sine qua non for any form of natural or artificial intelligence (Pfeifer and Scheier 1999).  p.155
  • If one could posit a singular through-line of this diverse research, it would be that bodily movement is essential to an understanding of all aspects of life.  p.155
  • The problem with embodiment as a joint philosophical-scientific concept, however, is that there are very different notions of exactly what it is, what it means for different disciplines and ways of knowing, and what kind of body (if any) is required for an embodied cognition (Ziemke 2001).  p.155
  • a need to re-evaluate the critical basis of phenomenological analysis of dance, performance, and somatic movement practices (e.g., Engel 2008; Kozul 2007; Legrand and Ravn 2009; Parviainen 2002; Rothfeld 2005; Rouhiainen 2003, 2008); the movement in cognitive science to grant the body a central role in shaping the mind (e.g., Clark 1997; Gallagher 2005; Gibbs Jr 2006; Thelen and Smith 1994; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991; Wilson 2002); and an explosion of interest among neuroscientists who view dance, for example, as a complex sensorimotor skill with unique neural organization (birringer and Fenger 2005; bläsing, Puttke, and Schack 2010).  p.156
  • to understand better the thinking behind the doing of dance, I contend that it is important now to introduce critical perspectives and conceptual approaches that can reframe and “ re-language” the role of movement and dance in human consciousness and cognition. the discipline of dance studies stands to benefit most from the current focus on the body as long as the problem of how to “language experience” in dance remains a primary concern.  p.156
  • music research that takes a more phenomenological approach emphasizes the first-person ‘lived’ experience of being a music maker, for example, while those from a cognitive neuroscientific approach take a third-person objective perspective to understand the implicit brain processes behind music-making. (After all, the brain is part of the body, hence the recourse to embodiment.)  p.156
  • The present essay charts a different path. by engaging a problem central to this research agenda — the riddle of how dancing emerges from the somatosensation of organized movement — my goal is to help open up the phenomenology of dancing to the cognitive sciences and visa versa. p.156
  • I propose the theoretical construct of  dance enaction to understand how experiences of dance emerge from more basic processes, and how dancing shapes the mind, body and brain. The concept of “enaction” is a cornerstone of the embodied cognition literature, which claims that cognition is “for action” — i.e., the function of the mind is to guide action — and is a “situated activity” — i.e., takes place in the context of a real-world environment. An enactive approach emphasizes the emotional and relational nature of thought in action (Erick Hawkins’ (1992) concept of “think/feel” as the basis for dance thought is an especially evocative historical example of the fundamentally twined nature of knowing in dance.) the conjoinment of “dance” with “enaction” defines the knowledge domain and real-world context of dancer action and performance.  p.157

Dance Enaction

  • Human beings everywhere engage in complex structured systems of bodily action that are laden with social and cultural significance. Language and gesture, movement and interaction, vision and audition, emotion and cognition all were involved in the development of the human mind as we know it today (Donald 1991). Dance was and is necessary precisely because it engages all aspects of the brain, body and mind. Despite the centrality of dance in human experience and the proliferation of dance studies, there has been little effort to advance a psychology of dancing. How do dancers construct and integrate all the necessary information to perform highly sophisticated physical tasks, lined up in hour-long choreographies, that have to be flawlessly remembered, at the same time producing expressions of deep emotional quality that have the power to communicate to others? Some consider dance as “thought made visible,” but fail to provide an adequate, domain-specific account of how the candidate cognitive processes that underpin dancing differ from gesture communication, musical or athletic performance (Stevens and McKechnie 2005).  p.157-58

Enacting talk from the body

  • to be trained as a dancer today is to be enculturated into a world of meanings and movements. the quintessential experience of dancing brings with it a sense of beingness in the here-and-now: a sensation through which one can perceive connectedness in movement, can locate the body in three dimensional space, can feel togetherness in time, and can know a oneness with a larger entity that humans often identify as transcendent religious experience. Dance is thus an ideal medium for investigating embodiment and considerable attention has been given to “talk about the body” as cultural object, to “talk of the body” as subjective experience and, more recently, to “talk on the body” as architect of the human mind (Damasio 1994; Desmond 1997; Farnell 1999). p.158
  • Dance as conscious event, whether deploying implicit (procedural) or explicit (declarative) knowledge, has both neurobiological and phenomenological features.  p.159
  • Human consciousness exists only from a first person, ontologically subjective, point of view. to know what dancing is or feels like, one must ask dancers what they experience or experience dance oneself (cf. Jackson 1982, for the “knowledge argument”). Questions about material underpinnings of experience will never reveal the entire story. p.159 – this can be a clue to the concept of dance as a first person methodology
  • this perspective suggests a method that generates insight into dance experience by taking an “enactive” approach in the investigation of “talk from the body.” talk from the body was first proposed by anthropologist Drid Williams (1991) as a way of understanding dance as dynamically embodied action in semantically-rich spaces. In my updated formulation, I argue for locating talk from body in those dance ideas that uniquely describe a content-rich pragmatics of cognition (versus a content poor mechanics of information processing, cf., Baltes, Staudinger, and Lindenberger 1999). Content-rich concepts emerge at the level of psychological description and are causally constituted by neurobiological processes. As discussed in a later section, a concrete example of talk from the body is the dance-specific (i.e., emic) concept known as “marking.” Literally “to mark time,” it is a memory device that dancers employ to mark particular moments in the dance — compressing their movements in space and chunking sequences in time — in order to commit to memory long passages of choreography. (Choreographers  understand this need and often tell dancers not to dance “full out” but to “mark it.”) marking is part of the practice of dance, pervasive in all phases of creation, rehearsal, and reflection. Virtually all English speaking dancers know the term, though few scholarly articles exist that describe it. Dancers are not taught to mark in any formal sense. Dancers devise their own personal marking system, developed and elaborated over time, which makes it prototypical talk from the body behavior. p.159
  • the first idea is that living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain their identities, and thereby enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains. the second idea is that the nervous system is an autonomous system: it actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity … [it] does not process information in the computationalist sense, but creates meaning. the third idea is that cognition is a form of embodied action. Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action. Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling. the fourth idea is that a cognitive being’s world is not a pre-specified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment. this idea links the enactive approach to phenomenological philosophy, for both maintain that cognition bears a constitutive relation to its objects (Thompson 2005, 407-08). p.160
  • I find the enactive approach an especially powerful theoretical lens for understanding dance thought in action for three main reasons. First, it posits a mental model that encompasses three intertwined modes of bodily activity,  modes that resonate with three intertwined realms of dance experience: self-regulation (somatic realm), sensorimotor coupling (kinesthetic realm), and intersubjective interaction (mimetic realm) (Cohen 1993; Kimmerle and Côté-Laurence 2003; Press 2002). Secondly, the enactive approach emphasizes the roles of emotional and relational experience in meaning making. It underscores the many ways emotion and cognition are linked from early perception to higher order reasoning (cf., Phelps 2006). And finally, its explanatory power lies in the ways it treats distinct claims in approaches to embodied cognition: claims that are not accounted for adequately by psychology or phenomenology alone.  p.160
  • Phenomenological accounts of “lived” experience, on the other hand, tend to view cognition as primarily in the moment and on-line: by definition, the situated being is an ecologically-oriented one who is in near constant interaction with the things that the cognitive activity is about (Gibson 1979). p.160-61
  • because the enactive approach views knowledge as constructed in action through emergent and self-organizing processes, it can account for the workings of both online and offline cognitive (and emotional) processes simultaneously.  p.161
  • At the perceptuomotor level, movement coordination requires continuous reciprocal influence between perceptual flow and motor commands; the dancer is undeniably situated in relationship to self (and instructor) and thinking “in real time.”  p.161
  • mirror neurons fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. In this way, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as if the observer herself were acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primates, humans, and birds, with a steady increase in published research on motor simulation in the human brain generally consistent with that of the mirror neuron system (MNS) (Cross 2010)8. p.162
  • It is important to note, however, that cognitive neuroscience has turned to dance to learn how the human brain coordinates perception with action, and not to understand dance cognition per se. Hence the need to assert a theoretical framework like dance enaction that locates front and center dance content, cognition, and consciousness. p.163
  • the study of the neural basis of simulation shows how emotions are in some sense shared through a mosaic of motor, somatosensory and affective simulations that activate corresponding representations in another person.  p.165
  • As described above, motor empathy is defend as the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize movements with those of another person. the perception of the ballet dancer’s back pain, for example, activates my corresponding representations (personal experiences of dance and back pain), which in turn can activate somatic and autonomic responses that make her pain in some sense “felt” by me (Avenanti et al. 2005). Cognitive empathy (also called “theory of mind”) refers to the ability to represent the internal mental state of others, i.e., their thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, and knowledge (Leslie 1987). Emotional empathy is a response to the emotional displays of others, i.e., their facial and vocal expressions and body movements, and other emotional situations, such as a response to hearing about a friend injure her back (Adolphs 2002). the research suggests that these three forms of empathy share a degree of anatomical overlap, but can operate independent of one another (Blair, 2005).  I suggest that these three kinds of empathetic responses provide additional empirical support for phenomenological accounts of dancing, where “feeling in” movement (somatic empathy) provides a foundation for the “feeling of”  (kinesthetic empathy) and “feeling for” (mimetic empathy) in dance. p.165-66
  • Kirsh argues that marking, as a partial version of a movement phrase, is a form of “physical thinking” that allows a dancer to understand something deeper about the phrase’s structure than through imagination or mental imagery alone: “[the dancer’s] performance of a marked phrase is part of their ongoing process of grasping the phrase … dancers do think about their phrases without dancing them or marking them. but, by marking-for-self dancers think better about their full-out phrase” (2010, 2868-69).  p.169
  • Marking can thus be understood as much more than an energy saving device or form of “physical thinking.” marking a phrase may in fact provide a scaffold to mentally project more detailed structure onto the architecture and poetry of the dance. As an example of dance enaction, marking can be viewed as a unique dance tool that — in its most advanced form — puts cognitive and psychomotor processes in the service of empathetic response and ultimately movement expression. marking in dance exemplifies, reduces, and reflects the psychological and physical complexity inherent in dancing without oversimplifying or trivializing it. p.170
  • By situating dance in a larger discussion of causes and contents, concepts and constructs, I hope to begin to understand how the experience of dancing emerges from a continuous stream of evolving affect, conceptual processing, physical sensation, and psychomotor skill all bound together in time and space to create connections between individuals and ideas. p.170
  • Dance marking activity reveals the power of an embodied mind understood as both “outer” and “inner,” biological and phenomenological: “it encompasses both the body as a lived, experiential structure and the body as context or milieu of cognitive mechanisms” (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991, xvi). p.171

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