Week 32: Catherine Stevens & Shirley McKechnie (2005) Thinking in action: thought made visible in contemporary dance

In April we read Catherine Stevens and Shirley McKechnie’s (2005) paper outlining a project proposal for examining the cognitive processes taking place in contemporary dance. Our group discussion was excellently led by Sara Pini.

Stevens and McKechnie begin by defining contemporary dance as “movement deliberately and systematically cultivated for its own sake” – although it is noteworthy that several members of the group took umbrage with this definition of contemporary dance – and their aim is to examine this in regards to a range of differing cognitive and epistemic aspects. This variety is both a strength and weakness of the paper: Stevens and McKechnie have covered a very wide range of material, but these are not covered in any great depth. As such, I think it is better to charitably see this paper as outlining the first steps of a wider research program which looks to be very interesting (as indicated by two nice case studies). I now discuss each of the differing features.

Procedural and declarative forms of knowledge. This is the distinction between knowledge that is, respectively, either implicit and unconscious relating to a skill (e.g. knowing how to walk or to ride a bike) or explicit and conscious relating to a fact (e.g. knowing that Donald Trump is somehow still the President of the USA). As such, this distinction is sometimes characterised as the difference between know how and know that. It is notable that although this distinction is important in contemporary philosophical and scientific discussions of expertise, it has recently been challenged by a number of thinkers (e.g. Sutton et al 2011).

Contemporary dance as a form of communication. Stevens and McKechnie state that communication in contemporary dance is multimodal – it involves: visual perception; motor simulation; and implicit learning of movement vocabularies and grammars. They go on to point out that these three are compatible and interact. I take the first two of these to be self-evident for any form of normative bodily movement that can be copied; viz. that the learner imitates the action of the teacher, and this involves observation and enactment. The point becomes more interesting if we consider that the watcher of the bodily movement is not a learner but just a “passive watcher” (i.e. an audience member). This relates not only to whether the passive observer acts out the movements (perhaps through activation of mirror neurons in the motor system); but there is also the interesting point here that dance is a multimodal form of communication between performer and audience. There are multiple channels of information flow that enable the transmission of an idea in a more robust manner due to degeneracy (see Mason 2014). Degeneracy is a similar notion to redundancy. But whereas redundancy is the multiplicity of equivalent structures to achieve the same function, degeneracy is the potential of a system to achieve a functional goal through multiple differing structures. In this case, dance as a multimodal form of communication operates across multiple differing structures and thus can make the communication more robust.

However, whilst these first two points contribute nicely to the wider discussion in the cognitive science literature on embodied cognition, I do not think that “implicit learning of movement vocabularies and grammars” is a coherent notion. It seems that Stevens and McKechnie are imply that by simply watching a piece of work an agent could implicitly learn about the choreographer’s movement vocabulary. I am sceptical of this. Simply put, my concern here is that context is crucial for communication. And without context communication is incredibly difficult. This would make implicit understanding very difficult. Indeed, it is notable that all the examples that Stevens and McKechnie point to in contemporary dance involve either [i] informed audience members; [ii] experts; and/or [iii] apprentices. It is far from clear that an uninitiated novice would be able to translate and understand the vocabularies of movement without some form of explicit teaching (for a distinction between various forms of teaching see Kline 2015). That being said, this is an empirical point – and it would be interesting to know whether one could test Stevens and McKechnie’s claim with a manipulative experiment. Indeed, a laudable and exemplary feature of their work is their aim to making testable hypotheses and possible experiments. This is particularly nice because it is arguably only through the combination of ethnographic and experimental work that we can properly make headway into investigating human cognition in the wild (see Hollan et al 2000 for similar claims).

Neural correlates of dance. Here Stevens and McKechnie’s claims are more speculative since at the time of writing there was a lack of technology for monitoring neurological activity of moving bodies (see Ladouce and colleagues [2017] for an interesting discussion in recent breakthroughs in mobile neuroimaging technology that enables the investigation of what they refer to as “mobile cognition”). But they are also interested in what regions of the brain are active in the observation of dance. An interesting study in these regards is by Calvo-Merino and colleagues (2004) who compared expert ballet and expert capoeira dancers observing conspecifics performing either ballet or capoeira. Calvo-Merino and colleagues found that participants had more neural activity when observing the dance of which they were an expert than one in which they were not (also see Downey [2012] for a comparative analysis of the differing ways in which learning to do a handstand in either gymnastics of capoeira can have a significant impact on the vestibular system and other embodied factors).

Thinking in action. Perhaps the most interesting contention of the paper is that dance can be medium for thought. And furthermore, that there are certain ideas or notions that can perhaps be better expressed or articulated through dance than other mediums (e.g. mathematical notation, natural language, etc.). A good example would be a certain affect, such as joy or sadness. The further, more radical claim, is not pursued here by Stevens and McKechnie: are there any ideas that can only be expressed through the vocabulary of dance? For instance, it is acknowledged by many experts in the fundamental physics community that quantum mechanics is best expressed in mathematical terminology and does not have any viable translation into natural language. The question here would be whether there are any ideas which choreographers are trying to express through the medium of contemporary dance that cannot be properly expressed in natural language or some other medium.






Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D.E., Grezes, J., Passingham, R.E., & Haggard, P. (2004) Action observation and acquired motor skills: an fMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral Cortex 15 (8), 1243-1249.

Downey, G. (2012) Balancing between Cultures: Equilibrium in Capoeira. (pp. 169–194) in D. H. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.) The Encultured Brain: An introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000) Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7 (2), 174–196.

Kline, M. A. (2015) How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (e31), 1-71. doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000090, e31

Ladouce et al (2017) Understanding Minds in Real-World Environments: Toward a Mobile Cognition Approach. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10, (694), 1-14. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00694

Mason, P. H. (2014) Degeneracy: Demystifying and Destigmatizing a Core Concept in Systems Biology.  Complexity 20 (3), 12-21.

Stevens, C. & McKechnie, S. (2005) Thinking in action: thought made visible in contemporary dance. Cognitive Process 6, 243-252.

Sutton, J., McIlwain, D., Christensen, W., & Geeves, A. (2011) Applying Intelligence to the Reflexes: Embodied Skills and Habits Between Dreyfus and Descartes. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 42 (1), 78-103.

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