This post is by Alex Miller Tate (University of Birmingham), reporting from an event taking place in London at the Institute of Philosophy on 26th May 2017, entitled "The Distributed Cognitive Ecologies of Collaborative Embodied Skill".
Philosophers, psychologists, and others share an interest in how human beings act in the world. In particular, scholars are fascinated by how humans develop and then intelligently deploy complex suites of skills and abilities, successfully engaging with an equally complex and rapidly changing environment. Even more impressively, humans often coordinate their actions with others – synchronising with and complementing the actions of their peers in collaborative endeavours as varied as football games and musical performances.
This workshop, organised by John Sutton of Macquarie University, was focused around the investigation of this fascinating topic, with particular emphasis on ways in which our complex, structured, material and social environments act not as a further burden on intelligent collaborative action, but as an enabler of it. At this workshop’s heart was a coming together of work on environmentally situated cognition and collaborative action. While the workshop brought together an invariably insightful group of scholars, I shall focus on just three presentations here.
While there were too many nuanced sets of results offered in her presentation to do justice to here, a few stood out. Firstly, her team have found evidence that sensorimotor brain regions are shaped similarly by both physical practice of complex, whole-body actions and the mere visual experience of another individual practicing the same action. This bolsters previous behavioural evidence that physical and observational rehearsal may share significantly common mechanisms. Moreover, the acquisition of expertise through weeks of learning significantly alters and sharpens activity in the brain associated with action simulation during observation, suggesting that degree and quality of action simulation is modulated by acquisition of embodied skill.
Finally, Cross and her colleagues are just beginning to unravel complex interactions between the development of expertise through physical practice, action simulation, and subjective aesthetic enjoyment of observed movements. Although there is some evidence that enjoyment increases as a function of perceived difficulty in untrained participants, early results look significantly more complex for trained dancers. All of this is grist to the mill for those who want to argue for the fundamentally embodied character of everyday acts of perception, and associated aesthetic judgments.