Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 17–37 | Cite as

The experience of watching dance: phenomenological–neuroscience duets



This paper discusses possible correspondences between neuroscientific findings and phenomenologically informed methodologies in the investigation of kinesthetic empathy in watching dance. Interest in phenomenology has recently increased in cognitive science (Gallagher and Zahavi 2008) and dance scholars have recently contributed important new insights into the use of phenomenology in dance studies (e.g. Legrand and Ravn (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 8(3):389–408, 2009); Parviainen (Dance Research Journal 34(1):11–26, 2002); Rothfield (Topoi 24:43–53, 2005)). In vision research, coherent neural mechanisms for perceptual phenomena were uncovered, thus supporting correlation of phenomenology and neurophysiology Spillmann (Vision Research 49(12):1507–1521, 2009). Correspondingly, correlating subjects’ neurophysiological data with qualitative responses has been proposed as a means to research the human brain in the study of consciousness (Gallagher and Zahavi 2008), with similar issues in clinical psychology Mishara (Current Opinion in Psychiatry 20(6):559–569, 2007) and biology Kosslyn et al. (American Psychologist 57:341–351, 2002). Yet the relationship between neuroscience and qualitative research informed by phenomenology remains problematic. How qualitative research normally handles subjective experiences is difficult to reconcile with standard statistical analysis of objective data. Recent technological developments in cognitive neuroscience have inspired a number of researchers to use more naturalistic stimuli, outside the laboratory environment, such as dance, thereby perhaps helping to open up the cognitive sciences to more phenomenologically informed approaches. A question central to our research, addressed here, is how the phenomenal experiences of a dance audience member, as accessed by qualitative research methods, can be related to underlying neurophysiological events. We outline below some methodological challenges encountered in relating audiences’ first-person accounts of watching live dance performance to neurophysiological evidence of their experiences.


Dance audience Kinesthetic empathy Phenomenological experience Cognitive neuroscience Qualitative audience research 


  1. Adelson, E. H., & Movshon, J. A. (1982). Phenomenal coherence of moving visual patterns. Nature, 300(5892), 523–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aglioti, S. M., Cesari, P., Romani, M., & Urgesi, C. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience, 11(9), 1109–1116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(2), 163–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., & Parsons, L. M. (2006). The neural basis of human dance. Cerebral Cortex, 16(8), 1157–1167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D. E., Grèzes, J., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2005). Action observation and acquired motor skills: An fMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral Cortex, 15(8), 1243–1249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Calvo-Merino, B., Grèzes, J., Glaser, D. E., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2006). Seeing or doing? Influence of visual and motor familiarity in action observation. Current Biology, 16(19), 1905–1910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Calvo-Merino, B., Jola, C., Glaser, D. E., & Haggard, P. (2008). Towards a sensorimotor aesthetics of performing art. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(3), 911–922.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Calvo-Merino, B., Ehrenberg, S., Leung, D., & Haggard, P. (2009). Experts see it all: Configural effects in action observation. Psychological Research, 74(4), 400–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cook, L. A., & Van Valkenburg, D. L. (2009). Audio-visual organisation and the temporal ventriloquism effect between grouped sequences: Evidence that unimodal grouping precedes cross-modal integration. Perception, 38(8), 1220–1233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cross, E. S., Hamilton, A. F., & Grafton, S. T. (2006). Building a motor simulation de novo: Observation of dance by dancers. Neuroimage, 31(3), 1257–1267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Daly, A. (1992). Dance history and feminist theory: Reconsidering Isadora Duncan and the male gaze. In L. Senelick (Ed.), Gender in performance: The presentation of difference in the performing arts (pp. 239–259). Hanover: Tufts University/University Press of New England.Google Scholar
  13. Davis, M. H. (1980). Multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.Google Scholar
  14. Dehaene, S. (1989). Discriminability and dimensionality effects in visual search for featural conjunctions: A functional pop-out. Perception & Psychophysics, 46(1), 72–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Exner, S. (1875). Experimentelle Untersuchungen der einfachsten psychischen Processe: IV. Abhandlung, Die Empfindungszonen des Sehnervenapparats. Archiv fűr die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere, 11, 581–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Pavesi, G., & Rizzolatti, G. (1995). Motor facilitation during action observation: A magnetic stimulation study. Journal of Neurophysiology, 73(6), 2608–2611.Google Scholar
  17. Fechner, G. T. (2009). Uber den Tanz. In: D. E. Gutenberg (Ed.), Das Literaturarchiv (Vol. ed. 11). Hille & Partner GbR.Google Scholar
  18. Foster, S. (2008). Movement’s contagion: The kinesthetic impact of performance. In Davis & C. Tracy (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to performance studies (pp. 46–59). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fraleigh, S. H. (1987). Dance and the lived body: A descriptive aesthetics. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  20. Friesen, J. (1975). Perceiving dance. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 9(4), 97–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2008). The phenomenological mind: An introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119(2), 593–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Glass, R. (2005). Observer response to contemporary dance. In R. Grove, C. Stevens, & S. McKechnie (Eds.), Thinking in four dimensions: Creativity and cognition in contemporary dance (pp. 107–121). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Glass, R., & Stevens, C. (2005). Making sense of contemporary dance: An Australian investigation into audience interpretation and enjoyment levels. Sydney: University of Sydney.Google Scholar
  25. Goebel, R. (2008). Response to Karaszewski: Creating significant art products requires the brains of artists. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(5), 171–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Graziano, M. S. A., & Botvinick, M. M. (2002). How the brain represents the body: Insights from neurophysiology and psychology. In W. Prinz & B. Hommel (Eds.), Common mechanisms in perception and action: Attention and performance XIX (pp. 136–157). Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Grosbras, M. -H., Jola, C., Kuppuswamy, Pollick, F. E. (2010). Enhanced cortical excitability induced by watching dance in empathic and visually experienced dance spectators. Poster, Watching Dance Conference, April, 23rd/24th, Manchester. Available from:
  28. Hagendoorn, I. (2004). Some speculative hypotheses about the nature and perception of dance and choreography. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(3–4), 79–110.Google Scholar
  29. Hagendoorn, I. (2010). Dance, choreography and the brain. In D. Melcher & F. Bacci (Eds.), Art and the senses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Hanna, J. L. (1983). The performer-audience connection: Emotion to metaphor in dance and society. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hansen, P., & Barton, B. (2009). Research-based practice situating vertical city between artistic development and applied cognitive science. TDR: The Drama Review, 53(4), 120–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hasson, U., Nir, Y., Levy, I., Fuhrmann, G., & Malach, R. (2004). Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision. Science, 303(5664), 1634–1640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hasson, U., Yang, E., Vallines, I., Heeger, D. J., & Rubin, N. (2008). A hierarchy of temporal receptive windows in human cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28(10), 2539–2550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Järvinnen, H. (2007). Some steps towards a historical epistemology of corporeality. Society of Dance History Scholars, 30th Annual Conference Co-sponsored with CORD, Centre National de la Danse, Paris.Google Scholar
  35. Johansson, G. (1973). Visual perception of biological motion and a model for its analysis. Perceptions & Psychophysics, 14(2), 201–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jola, C. (2010). Research and choreography. Merging dance and neuroscience. In B. Bläsing, M. Puttke, & T. Schacke (Eds.), The neurocognition of dance. Mind, movement, and motor skills (pp. 203–233). London: Psychology.Google Scholar
  37. Jola, C., & Mast, F. (2005a). Mental object rotation and egocentric body transformation: Two dissociable processes? Spatial Cognition and Computation, 5(2&3), 217–237.Google Scholar
  38. Jola, C., & Mast, F. W. (2005b). Dance images. Mental imagery processes in dance. In J. Birringer & J. Fenger (Eds.), Tanz im Kopf. Dance and cognition (Vol. 15) (pp. 211–232). Münster: LIT.Google Scholar
  39. Jola, C., Pollick, F. E., Grosbras, M. -H. (2011). Arousal decrease in ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Audiences’ neurophysiological correlates to watching a narrative dance performance of 2.5 h. Dance Research Electronic.Google Scholar
  40. Keysers, C., & Gazzola, V. (2009). Expanding the mirror: Vicarious activity for actions, emotions, and sensations. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19(6), 666–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kosslyn, S. M., Cacioppo, J. T., Davidson, R. J., Hughdahl, K., Lovallo, W. R., Spiegel, D., et al. (2002). Bridging psychology and biology. The analysis of individuals in groups. The American Psychologist, 57, 341–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Legrand, D., & Ravn, S. (2009). Perceiving subjectivity in bodily movement: The case of dancers. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8(3), 389–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lipps, T. (1906). Asthetik: Psychologie des Schönen und der Kunst (Vol. 2nd). Hamburg: Leopold Voss.Google Scholar
  44. MacFarlane, L., Kulka, I., & Pollick, F. E. (2004). The representation of affect revealed by butoh dance. Psychologia—An International Journal of Psychology in the Orient. SI: Nonverbal Communication and Action Recognition, 47(2), 96–103.Google Scholar
  45. Martin, J. (1939). Introduction to the dance. New York: Dance Horizons.Google Scholar
  46. Mason, J. (2002a). Qualitative researching (2nd ed.). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  47. Mason, J. (2002b). Qualitative interviewing: Asking, listening and interpreting. In T. May (Ed.), Qualitative research in action (pp. 225–241). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  48. McFee, G. (1992). Understanding dance. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Melcher, D., & Bacci, F. (2008). The visual system as a constraint on the survival and success of specific artworks. Spatial Vision, 21(3–5), 347–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  51. Mishara, A. L. (2007). Missing links in phenomenological clinical neuroscience: Why we still are not there yet. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 20(6), 559–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.Google Scholar
  53. Moran, J. (2010). Interdisciplinarity (New Critical Idiom) (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  54. Munzert, J., Zentgraf, K., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2008). Neural activation in cognitive motor processes: Comparing motor imagery and observation of gymnastic movements. Experimental Brain Research, 188(3), 437–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Parviainen, J. (2002). Bodily knowledge: Epistemological reflections on dance. Dance Research Journal, 34(1), 11–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pollick, F., Jola, C., Petrini, K., McKay, L., McAleer, P., & Simmons, D. (2010). Experience and the perception of biological motion. In K. Johnson & M. Shiffrar (Eds.), Perception of the human body in motion: Findings, theory, and practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Proske, U., & Gnadevia, S. C. (2009). The kinaesthetic senses. The Journal of Physiology, 587(Pt 17), 4139–4146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Reason, M. (2006a). Young audiences and live theatre, Part 1: Methods, participation and memory in audience research. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 26(2), 129–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Reason, M. (2006b). Young audiences and live theatre, Part 2: Perceptions of liveness in performance’. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 26(3), 221–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Reason, M. (2010a) Asking the audience: Audience research and the experience of theatre. In Gay McAuley and Laura Ginters (Eds.), special Issue, Audiencing: The work of the spectator in live performance. About Performance 10: 15–34.Google Scholar
  61. Reason, M. (2010b). The young audience: Exploring and enhancing children’s experiences of theatre. Trentham: Stoke on Trent.Google Scholar
  62. Reason, M., & Reynolds, D. (2010). Kinesthesia, empathy and related pleasures: An inquiry into audience experiences of watching dance. Dance Research Journal, 42(2), 49–75.Google Scholar
  63. Richards, L., & Morse, J. M. (2007). Read me first for a user’s guide to qualitative methods. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  64. Rothfield, P. (2005). Differentiating phenomenology and dance. Topoi, 24, 43–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  66. Sauter, W. (2000). The theatrical event: Dynamics of performance and perception. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.Google Scholar
  67. Schoenmakers, H. (1990). The spectator in the leading role: Developments in reception and audience research within Theatre Studies. In W. Sauter (Ed.), New directions in theatre research (pp. 93–106). Munksgaard: Nordic Theatre Studies.Google Scholar
  68. Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1980). The phenomenology of dance. London: Dance Books.Google Scholar
  69. Sherrington, C. S. (1907). On the proprio-ceptive system, especially in its reflex aspect. Brain, 29(4), 467–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28(12), 1059–1074.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Simons, D. J., & Rensink, R. A. (2005). Change blindness: past, present, and future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(1), 16–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Spillmann, L. (1999). From elements to perception: Local and global processing in visual neurons. Perception, 28, 1461–1492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Spillmann, L. (2009). Phenomenology and neurophysiological correlations: Two approaches to perception research. Vision Research, 49(12), 1507–1521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Treisman, A., & Gelade, G. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology, 12(1), 97–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Van Manen, H. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London: Althouse.Google Scholar
  76. Wade, N. J. (2003). The search for a sixth sense: The cases for vestibular, muscle, and temperature senses. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 12(2), 175–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wade, N. J., & Bruce, V. (2001). Surveying the seen: 100 years of British vision. British Journal of Psychology, 92(1), 79–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Zeki, S. (2002). Neural concept formation and art: Dante, Michelangelo, Wagner. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(3), 53–76.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Corinne Jola
    • 1
    • 2
  • Shantel Ehrenberg
    • 3
  • Dee Reynolds
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences, AD BuildingUniversity of SurreySurreyUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowUK
  3. 3.School of Languages, Linguistics and CulturesUniversity of ManchesterManchesterUK

Personalised recommendations