Embodied intelligence in skilled performance. New journal article published in the Review of Philosophy and Psychology

To perform consistently in the face of ongoing fluctuations in and from multiple sources, skilled performers must work with, rather than against, variability. This means developing strategies for monitoring fluctuations, for predicting their potential impacts.

Bicknell, K. Embodied Intelligence and Self-Regulation in Skilled Performance: or, Two Anxious Moments on the Static Trapeze. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00528-

My paper, Embodied intelligence and self-regulation in skilled performance: or, two anxious moments on the static trapeze, was recently published in the Review of Philosophy and Psychology. This article is part of a special issue on skilled action control edited by Myrto Mylopoulous and Elisabeth Pacherie, two skill(ed) scholars I really hope to meet one day when borders open and international travel is a thing again!

Given the number of academic disciplines I work in and across (performance studies, cognitive science, philosophy, anthropology, among others) and my desires for research to be accessible to a range of readers and genuinely reflect real world experiences, this new journal article weaves together a few different interests. It’s about skill theory and my transdisciplinary take on it, managing physiological and psychological fluctuations, and working with anxiety (not against it). It’s also about trapezes, vampires, helping hands, a lifetime of bike riding, several years of physio, and the joys of cognitive ethnography, theory building and inhabiting a determined body.

Mostly, this paper is a reaction to the idea that people’s skilled performance capacities are progressive: that we are always improving at something, rather than oftentimes regressing, or sometimes losing something in one area only to grow in others. I argue that skilled capacities are dynamic. We can do something one year, or day, or hour, that we can’t always do the next. Practitioners know this. That is why they are so careful about monitoring training programs, nutrition, sleep, hormone cycles, hydration, social interactions, power output, heart rate data, the list goes on. Researchers could learn a lot from investigating the highly personal strategies that experts use to manage fluctuation. I hope that work like this encourages more people, using a variety of investigative techniques, to do just that.

The full abstract is below. But before that, here’s another quote to whet your appetite.

My analysis of two anxious moments on the trapeze exposes a carefully-tuned scanning of self and world, and regulatory processes that respond to variability and vulnerability. Strategies that provided resilience in these situations included a context-sensitive shifting of focus in anticipation of movement, the individual and joint management of anxiety, the recognition of risk and its impact on thought and attention, and the desire, which links all of these experiences, to protect and support a fragile, mortal body.

[…] Because skilled repertoires are vulnerable, supplementary scaffolding is essential to ensure resilience under pressure. For skill theory to have practical relevance, it needs to do more than reflect the processes by which people achieve success. Skill theory needs to reflect the processes by which people navigate instability and decline.

Bicknell, K. Embodied Intelligence and Self-Regulation in Skilled Performance: or, Two Anxious Moments on the Static Trapeze. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00528-7

Thank you to Myrto and Elisabeth for their work and ambition in pulling this special issue together, to John Sutton for his unwavering encouragement and guidance in all things research, and to Macquarie University’s Cognitive Ecologies Lab and Centre for Elite Performance, Expertise and Training, to several colleagues and conference audiences for feedback on this research different stages of development.

Here is a direct link to the paper.

If you don’t have institutional access, an earlier draft is available on Academia.edu.

If audio/video is your preferred medium for soaking up this type of information, this YouTube video includes some of the material in this paper and more.

Happy reading and/or listening! Please get in touch if you’d like to chat further about any of the research presented here.


In emphasising improvement, smooth coping and success over variability and regression, skill theory has overlooked the processes performers at all levels develop and rely on for managing bodily and affective fluctuations, and their impact on skilled performance. I argue that responding to the instability and variability of unique bodily capacities is a vital feature of skilled action processes. I suggest that embodied intelligence – a term I use to describe a set of abilities to perceptively interpret and make use of information from body, mind, environment and task requirements, and to modulate one’s focus, awareness and action strategies accordingly – is critical for performing well-learned skills in vulnerable situations. It is critical for staying safe. To investigate these components of skilled action, I employ a cognitive ethnographic method, combined with apprenticeship on the static trapeze, to produce two ‘experience near’ case studies. These document in-situ experiences of awareness, self-regulation and embodied intelligence. Both reveal strong connections between a reflective awareness of bodily vulnerability and variability, and self-regulatory processes – specifically, the down- and up-regulation of anxiety. I then reflect on these case studies in relation to a prospective sense of agency, the awareness of control acts that may lead to performance outcomes. With increased clarity on these features of embodied intelligence and attention during action, other researchers can build on this study to further probe and map the maintenance and functions of embodied intelligence in dealing with the instability of skills.

Photo: Working on trapeze skills and the bodily strength to perform them well, taken by a classmate.