Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy

About Us

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) logo, links to AHRC home pageUniversity of Glasgow logo, links to University of Glasgow home pageImperial College London (ICL) logo, links to ICL home pageLogo of University of Manchester, established 1824, links to University of Manchesterhome pageYork St John University logo, links to York St John University home page

'Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy' uses audience research and neuroscience to explore how dance spectators respond to and identify with dance. It is a multidisciplinary project, involving collaboration across four institutions (University of Manchester, University of Glasgow, York St John University and Imperial College London).

We are funded by a grant from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2011. The project has since been extended to run until Summer 2011.

Meet the project team

Background information and rationale

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 without actually moving their bodies; that is, 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 a role in activating this response. Read how we are pursuing this line of enquiry in our Research section.

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 responses to dance and the context in which it is seen by spectators with different levels of experience 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.

Our study addresses a single problem from a range of perspectives and with complementary but logically independent disciplinary bases. The collaborative process and reflection on it could provide a paradigm for future multidisciplinary research across the arts and the sciences.