Synchronous movement cooperation and the performing arts

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Psychology


Across all cultures, people dance. Yet, little is known about what function dance and the performing arts fulfill in society, or why TV shows such as "Strictly come dancing" are so popular. We propose that the appeal of dancing and watching dance partly lies in promoting and communicating successful cooperation between people. Research in social psychology has shown that when two people meet, they become more like each other. They imitate each others' accent, speech rate and syntax; they look at the same things and use the same words; they adopt similar postures, gesture alike and gently sway together. This behavioural coordination studied in social psychology seems to produce feelings of liking and affiliation between pairs of people. Similarly, when small groups of people interact, and move together, they also feel closer to each other and are more likely to cooperate.

We will use dance as a means to study how moving together is linked to liking each other. Similarly, observing other people move together may produce aesthetic pleasure because it showcases successful social interactions. Our research aims to provide novel insights into the role that dance and the performing arts fulfill in modern society. In a set of experiments, we will test this hypothesis by inviting groups of people (non-dancers) to participate in "dance workshop" experiments that teach moving in synchrony. Rather than asking participants to just "do the same", we will work with professional dancers and choreographers to apply principles from dance and choreography to examine different ways of moving together. Following these workshops, we will assess cooperation, sympathy and liking between participants of the workshop and members of the audience. Performers and audience members will be equipped with small motion sensors and we will also record their electrical brain activity. This will allow us to link different ways of moving in synchrony (or asynchrony) to brain activity, cooperation and liking. In a follow-up functional neuroimaging experiment we will link aesthetic pleasure derived from observing collective human movement to specific brain mechanisms.

We will also explore clinical applications of our research project. For example the perception of human movement is impaired in patients with autism. Training to move in synchrony might help to improve such deficits in recognizing other people's actions because it requires to carefully monitor how movements are performed. Similarly, increasing awareness of an action by moving in synchrony may boost memory for an already performed action. In obsessive-compulsive disorder compulsive checking involves a vicious circle in which more checking paradoxically leads to less confidence in memory and impairs attention. Increasing action awareness through "over performing" obsessive actions or moving in synchrony with others could thus reduce obsessive behaviours such as washing by making it easier to remember that the action was perfoermed already.

In summary our research project combines expertise in dance, social psychology and neuroscience (a) to study how cooperation can result form simply moving together, (b) to understand aesthetic appreciation of dance and the perfroming arts, and (c) to develop new treatments for psychological disorders. Further, our research will provide new insights into the role that the perfroming arts fulfill in society and may also yield commercial applications for the creative industries.

Planned Impact

In our research project we explore the role of dance for social cohesion and cooperation in groups. Beyond the impact within the scientific community we will focus on four impact strategies to ensure a wider societal impact of this research project.

1) We will collaborate with internationally renowned dance company Siobhan Davies Dance and Choreographer/Dancer Matthias Sperling to develop movement materials suitable for this research project and develop public engagement activities such as open panel discussions and a dance performance. These activities will take place at Siobhan Davies Studios and will be advertised through the companies website and marketing channels.

2) We will collaborate with Prof Johannes Birringer at Brunel University to document the research project through the website of the Design and Performance Lab at Brunel University. The impact of the DAP live streaming channel has been considerable; since its inception 2011, the channel has produced more than fifty broadcasts that were viewed by circa 15000 viewers worldwide.

3) We will examine commercial applications of movement aesthetics by liaising with the design and fashion industry (Sara Hemming, Art Director Another Magazine, Creative Director DJA). Advertising increasingly moves from using still photography to film and animation. Already, fashion and design magazines routinely hire choreographers to assist in shooting. Accordingly, it is no longer enough to understand the aesthetics of how static visual images are composed, but it becomes increasingly important to understand the principles that mediate aesthetic appreciation of individual and collective human movement. Throughout this project we will explore commercial applications of our research in this field.

4) We will explore clinical applications of a movement-based therapy in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder in collaboration with Dr Annemiek Apergis-Schoute and Prof Barbara Sahakian (University of Cambridge). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a heterogeneous disorder, in which checking followed by washing are the most common compulsions, affecting around 2/3 of adults with OCD. Compulsive checking involves a vicious circle in which more checking paradoxically leads to less confidence in memory and impairs attention. We propose a new treatment of OCD based on "action awareness" where the patient will "over perform" the compulsion - by breaking the action down into components and attending to how the action "feels", as to train higher awareness and memory of the action which is normally an "automatic" compulsive behaviour. Performing movements in synchrony implies action awareness: In order to synchronize movements with others, patients will need to focus on how movements are performed, thus boosting memory and attention for compulsive behaviours. Further, the perception of human movement kinematics is impaired in patients with autism spectrum disorders. Increasing action awareness might help to improve such deficits in action recognition in this patient group.

We have attached support letters from all collaborators involved in the impact activities.


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Orgs G (2016) Constructing Visual Perception of Body Movement with the Motor Cortex. in Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991)
Vicary S (2017) Joint action aesthetics in PLOS ONE
Von Zimmermann J (2016) Verbal Synchrony and Action Dynamics in Large Groups. in Frontiers in psychology

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/M000680/1 24/11/2014 31/08/2015 £197,766
ES/M000680/2 Transfer ES/M000680/1 01/09/2015 31/05/2017 £107,042