Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


RESEARCH QUESTIONS The project will be the first to use audience research and neuroscience to explore audience responses to dance. It will investigate how dance spectators respond to and identify with movement. To what extent do they internally simulate the movement observed? What conditions favour empathetic response (e.g. interactions between movement and sound) and what are the roles of social engagement and emotional response in kinesthetic empathy? CONTEXT AND METHODOLOGY Arguments have been made in very different fields (phenomenology and aesthetics) that kinesthesia (sensation of movement and position) is central to consciousness and to spectator response, and that dance audiences can experience physical and imaginative effects of movement even without actually moving their bodies. Spectators can react in certain respects as if they were moving, or preparing to move. However, these views have remained controversial. Current techniques of neurophysiological investigation make it possible to investigate these claims more closely. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) enables measurement of the extent to which neural pathways from the brain to the muscles are primed for action. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can show which brain regions are active. Neurophysiological research using these techniques (including our 2007 pilot study) has shown that kinesthetic response is more likely to be activated if viewers have themselves acquired the necessary skills to execute the observed action. However, no-one has yet investigated whether familiarity with viewing dance movements also influences response, and whether sound and music play roles in activating this response. Research using fMRI cannot investigate response to live performance, as subjects need to be lying in a scanner, and TMS cannot be used in a theatre context. Neurophysiological research cannot investigate the social context or the lived experience of spectators, about which we know very little, nor explore what meanings spectators attach to their responses. Therefore our project is multidisciplinary and will employ innovative and in-depth audience research techniques in interaction with neurophysiological research. These techniques include participatory workshops (where the audience members are self-reflective participants), semi-structured interviews (where participants can influence the parameters of discussions) and creative workshops (where participants will engage in creative writing and drawing/painting). To facilitate comparison and interaction between the audience and neurophysiological research, we shall use the same criteria to define spectator categories. Some dance material will developed and performances/recordings used in the science experiments, and some subjects will participate in both audience research and science parts of the study. Participants in the TMS study will be interviewed. POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS The results will provide, for the first time, strong grounds on which to assess the role of kinesthetic response in dance spectatorship. In addition to having a decisive impact on the field of dance studies (with implications for reception of other art forms), this knowledge will be valuable for audience development and education.The insights into response to dance and the context in which it is seen by spectators with different levels of expertise will be helpful to those seeking to widen access and will thereby potentially enrich the cultural experience and quality of life of greater numbers of people. The neuroscience will build bridges between the fields of motor physiology, affective neuroscience and social neuroscience. The results will shed new light on the mirror system in humans, exploring its relationships with emotion perception on the one hand and sound and sight interaction on the other. The collaborative process and reflection on it could provide paradigms for future multidisciplinary research.


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Wood, K. (2010) An investigation into audiences' televisual experience of Strictly Come Dancing in Participations: International Journal of Audience Research

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Reynolds D (2010) Introduction: Evaluating Dance: Discursive Parameters in Forum for Modern Language Studies

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Reason, M. (2010) Screen Dance Audiences. Special Issue of Participations in Participations: International Journal of Audience Research

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Reason, M. (2010) Special Issue Introduction in Participations: International Journal of Audience Research

Description This work focused on:
• Links between kinesthetic empathy and the pleasure gained from watching dance
• Differences between audience members who were and were not dancers themselves
• Impact of music and sound on the experience of watching dance
The researchers used questionnaires, focus groups, fMRI brain scans and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to assess motor resonance and kinesthetic responses, mainly in spectators who were not dancers. The brain scans helped to identify which types of sound-movement relations gave rise to shared responses between spectators.

Kinesthetic Empathy and Pleasure
• Our qualitative audience research showed that kinesthetic responses are a key source of pleasure for many dance spectators. At the same time, kinesthetic empathy takes many forms of embodied and imaginative connections between self and other. While some spectators take pleasure in intimacy and closeness, others desire aesthetic distance.

Audience Members who are not Dancers
• Our TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) studies and our qualitative audience research provided evidence that for non-dancers, both visual experience of watching dance and empathic abilities can increase motor resonance with the observed movements. Thus, the motor repertoire of the spectators is not the sole factor that modulates the neurophysiological response to watching dance. We propose that motor simulation in action observation is possible via two pathways. Motor simulation can be driven by a direct motor resonance, resulting in kinematic congruency of observed and simulated movements. Further, motor simulation may occur by indirect action generation as a result of cognitive empathic abilities.
We also showed that motor corticospinal excitability is significantly more enhanced (showing greater kinesthetic response) when non-dancers view live rather than recorded dance.

Impact of Music and Sound
• Our neuroimaging research indicated a neurological pleasure in complex processing of different visual and auditory codes when watching dance. This corresponded to the qualitative audience research which indicated that for some spectators, aesthetic pleasure is derived from finding convergences between these two processes of interpretation, in contrast with the displeasure that might be experienced through misalignment and failures to perceive synchronicity.
• The evidence indicated by the qualitative audience research, along with the measurements provided by the neuroimaging data, also showed that hearing audible breathing as part of watching dance leads to kinesthetic empathy in the form of embodied responses. Whether or not this is a source of pleasure for spectators depends on their viewing motivations.
Exploitation Route Continuing the work of the Manchester Dance Consortium.
We have successfully bid for 2 rounds of ACE funding and are currently preparing a third bid.

There is potential to develop this work through using dance to influence empathy and I have begun to explore this in the context of working with people with dementia.
In addition to MDC, the project has let to a collaboration with the Alzheimer's Society and the making of a film, 'I Can't Find Myself'.
Sectors Creative Economy,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Our researchers studied responses to watching dance as evidenced by brain activity and verbal expression and used this knowledge to indicate new ways for choreographers to engage with audiences. This has led to initiatives in Manchester that are broadening dance audiences and supporting collaborations between choreographers and audiences. Key benefits: Launch of the Manchester Dance Consortium in 2011 to support and develop the Manchester dance scene and encourage audience input to choreographic practice in light of the research Innovative performance formats that offer new modes of engagement to audiences and new collaborative opportunities for choreographers Changes in creative practice New forms of expression in dance Growing performance opportunities and funding in the city This was submitted as a Case Study to REF under the title 'Turning Points in the Manchester Dance Scene'.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural