Watching Movement

Phenomenology, cognition, performance

Authored by: Stanton B. Garner

The Routledge Companion to Theatre, Performance, and Cognitive Science

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138048898
eBook ISBN: 9781315169927
Adobe ISBN:


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Peter Brook famously wrote, ‘A man walks across [an] empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’ (1968, 9). In recent decades, science has taught us much about the cognitive mechanisms engaged by this minimalist scene and more elaborate ones that include performers moving and acting on stage. We know that our perceptual system operates on and through movement – in other words, that we understand our environment through our potential to interact with it in embodied, situated ways. As part of our evolutionary legacy, we are cognitively primed to detect movement in this environment, especially animate movement. Though the precise mechanisms underlying this association are subject to disagreement, we know that we engage in similar neural operations when we perceive intentional movements – or actions – as we do when we execute these movements ourselves. It is also clear that our ability to do so in specific situations is influenced by cultural conventions, individual movement repertoires and factors such as training. Finally, we know that the acts of imagining, remembering and verbally recounting actions engage cognitive mechanisms that we employ in action observation and execution. This is true when we read about an action or hear an action recounted by someone else.

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