Embodied cognition, the static trapeze and a seminar. Come!

One of the upshots of workplace responses to the Covid-19 pandemic is that virtual catch ups with colleagues and other wonderful, like-minded folk have become more normalised. In an academic context, this is especially exciting when it means conversations, workshops, seminars and conferences become possible that would have previously required a significant travel budget in the past. There are certainly limits to online participation, but the plus-sides are an unexpected source of joy and motivation during very challenging times for all.

On that, I’ve been invited to speak at a Performance, Media and Sport seminar series, hosted by the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University in Wales. I wrote my PhD on sport and performance studies almost a decade ago. To say I’m excited this area of scholarship is growing (trendy even!), and looking forward to meeting some other critical thinkers (and doers!) in this area, is the understatement of the year.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday February 10 at 9pm Sydney time, which is 10am Wales time, and possibly something else again in your own time zone. It will run for up to an hour and a half.

Details on this and other interesting sounding presentations in the series, and the direct link to join them, can be found here.

I’ll be presenting some ethnographic work on embodied cognition and a really fun project that involved learning the static trapeze. An abstract is below. Some of this work has just been accepted for publication, so please get in touch if you would like to learn more.

To those of you across philosophy, psychology, the cognitive humanities and cognitive science who have listened to and commented on earlier versions of this work: thank you enormously. Interdisciplinary work like this is definitely more enjoyable, and has more impact and relevance, due opportunities to talk with and learn from others.

Staying alert to risk and bodily vulnerability in performance and training: a cognitive ethnographic study on the static trapeze

Kath Bicknell

Department of Cognitive Science

Macquarie University

Sydney, Australia

Performers at all levels rely on a range of carefully tuned processes for managing fluctuating physiological and psychological capacities and their impact on training and performance. Skill theory in philosophy, psychology and cognitive science has overlooked the critical roles of such processes, emphasising improvement, smooth coping and success over variability and instability. Performance studies – a discipline adept at using transdisciplinary approaches to jointly analyse theory and practice – has much to offer skill theory, a lively area of research hungry for richly detailed case studies.

I present three such case studies that explore the highly context-specific, idiosyncratic nature of negotiating vulnerability and variability in performance and training. I argue that embodied intelligence – a term I use to describe a set of abilities to perceptively interpret and make use of fluctuating information from body, mind, environment and task requirements, to filter these perceptions, and to adjust one’s focus, awareness and strategies as necessary – is critical for performing new and well-learned skills well in vulnerable situations. It is critical for staying safe. To investigate this phenomenon, I employ a cognitive ethnographic method which I combine with apprenticeship on the static trapeze. The first case study documents the use of ‘instructional nudges’ or cues for guiding complex embodied actions. My analysis takes Ericsson and Kintsch’s (1995) psychological research on long-term working memory in experts and integrates it with theories of embodied cognition and skilled action. In doing so, I demonstrate that these cues can be multimodal, overlapping and draw on highly individual, interactive and context specific features of the performance environment. The second two case studies document in-situ experiences of physiological vulnerability and self-regulation. Together they reveal strong connections between a reflective awareness of bodily variability, and self-regulatory processes – specifically, the down- and up-regulation of anxiety. After sharing conclusions from this study on the trapeze, I will briefly share the details of additional projects which continue to combine methods and thinking from performance studies and cognitive science. I encourage other researchers to respond with case studies and theoretical interests of their own to broaden what we know about minds, bodies and skilled action in other sports, performance practices and populations.