Embodied Creativity in Dyadic Interaction

Period: June 2015 - December 2017

Principal investigator(s):

  • Dr. Michael Kimmel

Team member(s):

  • Dayana Hristova, MA
  • Christine Irran

Funding program: FWF Stand-alone Projects

Involved fields: Cognitive Ethnography (Empirical Phenomenology, Joint Action/Interaction, Embodied Cognition)


The ability to negotiate the course of a dynamic embodied engagement is fundamental to human sociality. Many skills cultivate this basic endowment; they provide an excellent test-bed for exploring the systemic foundations of interactional adaptivity, flexibility, and order.

Specifically, the project investigates “interactive” movement creativity by comparing Contact improvisation (CI), Tango Argentino and Aikido. These disciplines represent a range of basic interaction aims (cooperative vs. antagonistic) and modalities (leading-following vs. symmetric decision-making); yet share a high degree of sophistication and key cognitive requirements: Adepts integrate a differentiated situational awareness and tremendous cognitive base, both consisting of action repertoires and a grasp of deeper principles. These abilities allow experienced practitioners to dynamically select and adapt actions in a way that fits each unique encounter, while matching the coordinative demands with their own expressive or exploratory aims. To excel practitioners must therefore reconcile improvisation with the imperatives of continuous rapport, minutely coordinated complementary actions, and meaningfulness. Actions should connect fluidly, be well timed, safe and efficient – yet chosen without much foresight or planning. Furthermore, agents should maximize information flow and dynamic stability. The striking feat is that experienced dancers and martial artists respect all these constraints simultaneously, creating variable and adaptive engagements, yet also with recognizable style, well-formedness, and body “grammar”.

Our objective is to chart the adaptive competencies of experienced improvisers and understand the constraints of the systems they work in. We propose a set of micro-genetic explication methods (“empirical phenomenology”): Think-aloud protocols are a dialogic facilitation procedure that enables interacting couples to verbalize their embodied competencies step-by-step. Thinking aloud with dialogic support focuses an agent’s attention while (s)he probe his or her sensations, actions, and coordination dynamics. Specifically, we invite advanced improvisers to workshops to engage in playful exploration and variation. They are asked to let their natural creativity run their course; subsequently selected “thin slices” of the interaction stream are subject to joint scrutiny. Alternatively the researchers encourage experimenting with specific micro-variations and perturbations of the interaction dynamic. We hereby aim to inventorize an encounter’s various skill components, map them on a timeline, and understand how these components coalesce into synergies. The first step is to pinpoint individual micro-strategies used for interaction and creativity; then we connect the time-locked perceptions and actions into an interaction model. The result is a model of the behavioral dynamics between agents. We ask how micro-actions co-specify or reciprocally trigger each other, compare different dynamic scenarios, and determine which small individual alterations make a difference interpersonally and which do not.

The data collection proceeds in four stages:

  • Cognitive Base (repertoire): What basic movement units and principles do novices start with? How does repertoire progressively become more granular, more variable and better adapted to its context, as rigid forms fluidify? What role do sketchy action concepts play? To what extent can advanced experts leave fixed repertoire behind? That is, can a chaining of ready-mades be supplanted by dynamic soft-assembly strategies? How can one find solutions in a force-field of pragmatic principles? (We might think of this as operating a “control panel” of multiple physical parameters that are scaled individually, yet combined in a balanced mix.)
  • Transitions and decision-making: What time windows are suitable to initiate major changes of trajectory? How do sudden changes differ from incremental ones? How are transitions rendered fluid and safe? What do experts know about combinability of elements in a “system matrix”? What sensory cues determine what the current options (i.e. degrees of freedom) are? When do experts dynamically repair interactions and when do they prefer to switch strategy or aims?
  • Interpersonal micro-coordination: Which mechanisms allow two moving bodies to mutually adjust in real time? How are negotiation situations and external perturbations handled quickly and safely? What control laws support interpersonal coordination of weight sharing, distance, and body geometry? How do individual parameters like muscle tone or attention contribute here? What sort of interaction settings requires what sorts of perceptual or cognitive mechanisms?
  • Joint creativity: Where do couples draw improvisational creativity from? How much leeway does creativity have inside a discipline; what is non-negotiable? How do boundary conditions, roles, and factors like music impact creative processes? How do agents set constraints in order to stimulate creativity? What is the role of chance and systemic self-organization? What “good tricks” bring on unintended, but perfectly fitting surprises?

In sum, this project addresses scholars of enactive, embodied, embedded, and extended cognition working on the emergence of novelty and on human interaction understood as complex dynamic system. More generally, we address those who take interest in implicit expertise “hidden in the body” and seek innovative methods. Finally we hope to inspire the communities of practice Tango, CI, and Aikido by handing them tools to talk about (and teach) what they do.

Dr. Michael Kimmel