Watch: 7 years of research on embodied cognition and vulnerability in skilled performance. One friendly seminar.

How might time spent riding rock gardens assist with other tricky tasks in life? What is embodied intelligence and how can it help with performing complex skills under pressure?

My recent talk, ‘Staying alert to risk and bodily vulnerability in performance and training: a cognitive ethnography study’ is available to watch through YouTube. How exciting!

The talk explains my research on high-pressure performance processes and embodied intelligence. This interest began while working and studying in Performance Studies, before working for the last seven and a half years in Cognitive Science. It’s in these last seven years, working closely with Professor John Sutton and the Cognitive Ecologies Lab, that I’ve had the opportunity to really dig into the Cog Sci literature on skilled performance and embodied cognition. Given the chance to address a Theatre and Performance Studies crowd for this seminar, an experience that felt a bit like ‘coming home’, I also discuss some of the exciting intersections and overlaps between both fields.

The main focus of the talk is on three cases studies from a really fun project learning the static trapeze, which I started in 2014. I question whether minds ‘go blank’ in performance and training and suggest roles for awareness and cognitive processes in such states that are far more useful and intriguing. Roles that keep us on task. And safe. A full abstract for the talk is below.

An interest in the academic side of this work will make it more enjoyable, but you don’t need to have come across any particular theory, etc. before.

This invited presentation was part of the Performance, Media and Sport seminar series, at Aberystwyth University in Wales. The series was hosted by the university’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies. 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!) is the understatement of the year.

Details on other seminars in the series, can be found here. Head to the Aberystwyth TFTS YouTube channel for other recordings.

Tremendous thanks to Keiran Holland for hosting this series and inviting me to share this work, and to Keiran, Andrew Filmer and seminar participants for the engaging chats on work happening in related areas before and after. To colleagues across philosophy, psychology, the cognitive humanities and cognitive science who have listened to and commented on earlier versions of this research: 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.

If you are interested in a recent paper on some of the research presented in this talk, this one was published in a special issue of the Review of Philosophy and Psychology: Embodied intelligence and self-regulation in skilled performance: Or, two anxious moments on the static trapeze.


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

Dr 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 and third 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. The second 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.

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.