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Patrick Haggard on Dance and Cognitive Neuroscience

My main research work focuses on bodily sensation and the control of voluntary action.  I investigate these topics from the perspective cognitive neuroscience: that means studying psychological questions about perception and action through understanding the processes and representations in the brain that underlie perception and action.

I became interested in dance several years ago when I was asked to contribute to a TV programme called “The Dancer’s Brain.”  Dance offers the possibility to study sensorimotor systems at optimal calibration.  However, most of our work to date has used dance to investigate the brain mechanisms for seeing and representing the human body and human action.  For example, working with a dancer and a choreographer, we contstructed a set of stimuli showing the same body in a wide range of body postures, and we asked non-dance volunteers to distinguish whether two postures shown in quick succession were the same or different.   We were able to identify two distinct brain systems involved in representing the human form: one area in the posterior, visual brain recognised postures from local details of body parts, e.g., the orientation of fingers and feet.  A second area, in the anterior, motor brain was concerned with the global posture of the body as a whole, in the sense of the positioning of body parts relative to one another to form a whole geometric pattern.  We called this a ‘motor way of seeing’.

The same area, in the premotor cortex, seems also to provide a unique way of viewing dance actions.  We showed ballet and capoeira clips to expert ballet and capoiera dancers in a brain scanner.  The premotor cortex showed stronger activations which each dancer watched the movements of their own style than movements of the other style.  That is, the dancers’ brains represented the movements that they saw in terms of movements that they themselves performed.

More recently, I’ve become interested in the aesthetic response of dance.  Why can watching bodily movements have aesthetic value, and what brain processes are involved in this aesthetic experience?  Is there a special link between the motor way of seeing and the aesthetic response to dance?  Clearly, that’s a complex issue, and there are many layers to dance aesthetics.  In fact, the area is an intellectual minefield, and some people think it shouldn’t be approached scientifically at all.  My personal view is that one can shed at least some light on these questions by analysing them scientifically.  To do so, the scientific approach evidently needs to simplify, and work with a reduced version of the artistic object.  But this simplification is not disrespectful: rather, it’s an effort after meaning.

A number of themes keep recurring in the (minimal) experimental aesthetics literature on dance.  One is geometric arrangement of body postures, and a second is the pattern of visual motion, as the dancers’ image flows across the observer’s retina.  My latest work, which I hope can feed in to Choreographic Objects, focuses on how visual biological motion in dance carries aesthetic value.  Working with Scott deLahunta, Norah Zuniga Shaw and Maria Palazzi, I’ve been using a top-view video of “One Flat Thing” to look at some of the factors that influence the aesthetic response to dance.  We extracted very brief 2 s clips from the piece, and showed them in pairs to participants in our experiment.  After each pair, participants had to say which of the two they preferred. These aesthetic preference judgements tell us little about why people like one piece of movement rather than another, and certainly don’t capture the whole of aesthetic experience, but they do represent a kind of aesthetic bottom line: if a person prefers clip A to clip B, then clip A presumably has a greater aesthetic value to that person at that time.

Based on our viewing of the piece, we classified each clip according to what we felt were three key dimensions of dancer movement in the piece:
•    Coherent movement vs chaotic movement
•    Several dancers moving vs few dancers moving
•    Fast movement vs slow movement
Combining all of these dimensions with each other allowed us to place each clip into one of 8 categories (2×2x2).  We then showed 32 participants several pairs of clips, and looked for any consistent patterns of preference across people.  Previous studies of visual art suggested aesthetic preferences are highly inconsistent across individuals, and reflect individual taste and culture, but there is almost no previous experimental work on performance art.

We found one clear and significant result in aesthetic preference judgements.  When many dancers were moving simultaneously, participants preferred chaotic motion to coherent motion. When just a few dancers were moving, we found the opposite pattern.  We interpret this as the coexistence of two ‘registers’ for watching dance, both carrying aesthetic value, but with quite different tones.  The alternation between these registers is what I personally find in viewing OFT.

In addition, we’ve also considered the relation between choreographic cues and the observer’s experience, and the relation between aesthetic evaluation and memory.  I’ll describe these results in another post to the blog.
—Patrick Haggard