Dance as a Distributed Cognitive Event

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Cognition and Art

Dance as a Distributed Cognitive Event

Does the visceral response arise as a response to the facials and gestures or the individual movements of the dancer? Could the reaction be explained when constrained to the elements within the four walls of the theater?

Co-authored with Victor Nazlukhanyan

Unsplash photo from Samantha Weisburg

When faced with hardships as an adult, throwing a tantrum may be irrational and inane. However, on the stage, tantrums are permitted — and encouraged. I found myself collapsing through the hits, flying through the hardships, spinning through the confusion, jumping through happiness, pacing through anxiousness, and reaching out through desperation. It was there I stood naked and vulnerable. Throwing the tantrums I could not in real life. Allowing all of the frustration, doubts, and fears to unveil them on stage in front of an audience who wouldn’t know the content, but could connect to the universal emotions.

The art of dance is a powerful form of creative communication and expression, that oftentimes elicits this emotional, visceral response within an audience. One may speculate as to how this visceral, cognitive experience may arise. Did this arise as a response to the facials and gestures or the individual movements of the dancer? Could the reaction be explained when constrained to the elements within the four walls of the theater?

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Distributed Cognition Framework (DCog)

When looking at this event through the lens of a distributed cognition framework (DCog), this cognitive experience is an emergent phenomenon arising from the dance performance.

The performance itself is a cognitive system “whose structures and processes are distributed between internal and external representations, across a group of individuals, and across space and time” (Zhang and Patel, 2006).

We will explore the cognitive activity of a dance duet and argue that a dance duet is a perfect example of distributed cognition.

Distributed Cognition Framework (DCog)

The confines of the stage as an appropriate physical boundary (Image Source)

One important aspect of the DCog framework is the unit of analysis (UoA) which focuses on considering the most appropriate boundary to set when analyzing a specific cognitive activity. The most appropriate boundary to encompass the majority of the critical components of a duet would be the confines of the stage of the theater, temporally constrained to the entirety of the dance piece. Another important component of the DCog framework is the idea of emergence, wherein a particular property of the system “emerges” through the coordination of the various parts of said system.

In the piece, “The Distributed Cognition Perspective on Human Interaction”, Hutchins points out that “the meanings of elements of multimodal interactions are not properties of the elements themselves, but are emergent properties of the system of relations among the elements.” (381).

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Emergence

In the dance piece, there are various emergent properties, that are distinctly separated as the physical emergent properties (specific movement patterns or dance techniques that could not have otherwise been performed by one person alone) and the metaphysical emergent properties (an overarching meaning or imaginative experience induced within the audience).

The piece we will analyze is “Dreaming With a Broken Heart”, performed by Twitch and Kherington. The two perform to the John Mayer song on an elevated bed (an artefactual resource). The metaphysical properties that emerge include the understanding that the male dancer is on his bed going through a heartbreak and struggling with his dreams of his female counterpart.

Figure I: This figure illustrates how one component cannot account for the cognitive accomplishment of creating meaning through dance but rather it is the coordination of parts that produce the output

Another metaphysical emergent property that could occur within the audience could be empathy. In order to gain the most comprehensive understanding of these metaphysical emergent phenomena, the UoA could be extended further to include heartbreak events in the world providing further context. Restraining the boundary of the UoA to the stage will allow for a more in depth analysis of the most critical components, however, we will revisit the cultural significance of the piece.

Cognitive Accomplishment and Division of Cognitive Labor

All dance pieces aim to impart a particular mental state associated with a specific message to the audience. In the DCog framework, this goal in the context of the activity would be called the cognitive accomplishment.

In the duet, this would be the visceral account of heartbreak in the audience’s mental state. The division of cognitive labor delves into the chunking of the cognitive accomplishment into fragments, wherein each agent takes the role of accomplishing their respective fragment. An overarching instance of the division of cognitive labor is that the male dancer specifically plays the role of the heartbroken individual while the female dancer plays the role of the heartbreaker that occurs within his dreams. A further examination of the role of the heartbreaker reveals the use of body language that expresses anger, frustration, hopelessness, and pain. These emotional experiences are dictated by movements such shaking fists in the air and sitting in a crouched position on the bed. Furthermore, a critical component of dance hinges on the shared symbolic knowledge as to the meaning of certain gestures, facial expressions and movements between the culture in which it is carried out.

In the DCog framework, this human capacity is referred to as intersubjectivity.

In the paper, “A Study of the Expression of Bodily Posture” by William T. James, participants observed a particular posture and reported the emotion expressed. There was a general consensus that a “crouched position (with) knees slightly bent” indicated “general weakness or helplessness” and “head forward and bowed” signaled “dejection” (412).

Within this dance piece, the utilization of this very crouched position would create the emergent property of dejection and weakness which relies on the intersubjective understanding of these postures.

In “A Study of the Expression of Bodily Posture” by William T. James, a crouched position with knees slightly bent indicated general weakness or helplessness. (Image Source)

Another level of analysis within the DCog framework is the temporal distribution of a cognitive event which focuses on how the activity is organized over time. “Dreaming With a Broken Heart” unfolds across time with:

  1. The introduction of the heartbroken male lying on the bed dreaming about the female.
  2. The middle portion where there’s a peak of tension as he struggles with his dream of her being right next to him. Within this time frame, another critical division of this cognitive labor could be seen where the male dancer constantly chases the female dancer throughout the piece. This both signifies the female dancer as being “in control” of the male dancer’s emotions, as well as providing a basic kinesthetic division of movement. This component of chasing would not be possible without the unfolding of time.
  3. The conclusion with the male “waking up” and realizing that he truly is alone in his bed.

When analyzing how the parts are interacting with one another (the coordination of parts), one would observe that the interplay of the parts solidify the emergent meaning of the piece as shown in Figure I.

For instance, a singular movement such as the female dancer sliding down in a sleeping position holds arbitrary interpretation. However, when taking to account that she slides down the bed while, simultaneously, the music plays, “wondering was she really here”, one realizes that the male counterpart had been contemplating on her presence there on his bed.

Another component to take into account is the dim, blue lighting projected on the stage to signify that this takes place during night time and the mood is gloomy. While the movements and postures by themselves may induce a sense of understanding as shown in the study by William James, the music and the use of external artifacts are needed to provide more specific context.

Propagation of Representation / Cognitive Offloading

Another way that the component parts coordinate is through cognitive offloading. The DCog framework refers to this concept as the propagation of representation. An inherent part of dance pieces in general is the use of music to coordinate their movements. In our piece, there are two fundamental external artifacts employed to achieve the cognitive accomplishment: the song and the bed.

John Sutton, in “Distributed Cognition: Domains and Dimensions”, indicates that “different non-biological external resources […] vary on a whole range of dimensions including […] the medium-dependence or translatability of the information they carry, […] their capacity as symbol systems, […] the context-dependence of their use and so on” (242).

Our particular external artifactual resources, the song and the bed, vary on these dimensions based on audio capability and ability to be utilized as a physical platform respectively.

The use of cognitive offloading can be evident when John Mayer sings “you roll out of bed and down on your knees” while simultaneously, the male dancer performs a dance roll out of the physical bed on the stage, down to the floor to his knees. Another example includes the male dancer slamming his fists on the bed four times to perfectly correspond to four distinct drum hits. In this way, the male dancer cognitively offloaded the timing of his fists to the rhythm of the drum hits (i.e. the dancer would be unable to time such fist hits in his mind at that very instance without the use of the external audio artifact — the music — aiding him).

Cultural Schema

It is critical to note that despite the coordination of these parts interacting to create the duet, these all still fail to account for the emergent metaphysical properties that arise. If one were to expand the UoA to include all the places in which heartbreak has been depicted, this would result in a much richer understanding on how empathy and understanding emerges.

Additionally, another component that the phenomenon relies on is cultural schema being that some cultures have arranged marriages and a majority of those in that culture may not understand the idea of heartbreak in the same manner that the majority of the audience watching this piece could in the modern era. Furthermore, within this culture, one could interpret the movements that may occur through heartbreak by referring to prior experiences that have had or movies they encountered that depict the movements that one may carry out when experiencing heartbreak. Another may understand the movements because they, themselves, are dancers that know the process of creating a dance within their lifetime (thinking of the temporal distribution at the ontogenic level).

Image Source

Furthermore, many onlookers may have differing experiences and knowledge when experiencing the dance. Cole and Engeström noted:

“There is no doubt that culture is patterned, but there is also no doubt that it is far from uniform” (15).

In other words, everyone may share the same basic understanding of the piece but have their own subjective understanding.

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