Dance, Design, and Healing: Imagining The Empathy Interface
Dance is a way of thinking and knowing. More broadly our ability to move — to sense and respond to our environment — is a pathway toward wellbeing. Practicing movement, we discover health, creativity, flow, and play. In my recent post, 10 Principles of Wellbeing Design, the first principle is “Move.” Here, I dive further into the power of movement, inspired by Why We Dance: a Philosophy Bodily Becoming, by dancer and religious scholar Kimerer LaMothe. Also a chronicle of the negative effects of digital technology on the body, this story explores the possibilities that arise when we shift our lens to prioritize movement as we design new technologies.
I am sitting at the computer, tunnel vision between reading and manipulating the signs and symbols on the screen. Locked into my chair, head thrust forward, barely moving. I am intent on getting some sense of completion. I forget my body completely drawn into the flow of some creative endeavor. I have done this for years, but something is changing. Starting on the left side of my neck, down through my collarbone, elbow and into the fingers of my left hand, fire, burning and tingling as I tap the keyboard. These sensations have been building for months and are present even when I grasp a simple kitchen bowl.
How did I/We get here?
(Just want the story and not the theoretical context? Skip to the next section.)
Blame Descartes for this splitting of the mind from the body that has so shaped our world. In a contemporary update, Katherine Hales names this the “erasure of embodiment,” a desire to export the mind into a realm of pure data and symbols. It’s the ultimate cyborg ideal which gives us an escape route from the mess we’ve made of the world around us. First published in 1999, this work maps the trajectory of the disappearing body in an age where we can search a universe of information on-demand and store our memories in the cloud. Despite the benefits of these tools, I know my physicality is essential to who and what I am.
Counter to this dualistic perspective is a history rooted in the understanding that we are what and who we are because we have bodies that move. We can trace these concepts to philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Kimerer LaMothe and across fields as diverse as cognitive science, ecology, feminist studies, and the arts. In The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark, Larissa MacGarquhar traces the shift of the philosopher’s thinking along these lines. Clark’s perspective was influenced by observing the challenge of developing A.I. and robotics that could make movements that were simple enough for a child to make but proved exceptionally complex to engineer. His original thesis of the “extended mind” extended the boundaries of the selves to our devices. He evolves to a perspective that, “A creature didn’t think in order to move; it just moved, and by moving it discovered the world that then informed the content of its thoughts.” In other words, embodied cognition, the notion that bodily experience is inseparable from intelligence and consciousness.
Echoing this, neuroscientist, Daniel Wolpert believes the real reason we have brains is to perform complex movements. Grounded in the body, this model frames alternative relationships between people and their interior experience, across human communities and with the planet. It’s a mindset that nurtures a growing awareness of connection and interdependence as we move through and interact with place.
Dance as a practice and broadly defined can sustain and balance these relationships. To dance or to move according to LaMothe is, “to exercise this capacity of a human bodily self in creating and becoming patterns of sensation and response,” a process she describes as, “the rhythm of bodily becoming,” that “exists to seek wellbeing. That is to say, moving is how we know the world, how we grow and how we seek health. LaMothe takes this one step further and hypothesizes that the aim of evolution is for “movement to continue,” rather than for “matter to reproduce”, a reframe that shifts our focus from objects to flow.
Despite this emergent view, we still travel through a reality that privileges the life of the mind. People spend days static, interacting with screens, seated in transport, and near motionless while being entertained. If as LaMothe says, “the movements we make make us,” where exactly are we headed?
What is the cost of technology to our bodies?
Our bodies pay a price for stillness. Ceaseless reading, writing, and scrolling decreases our wellbeing. Social media use can increase depression, sitting all day can lead to a variety of conditions from high blood pressure to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. The effects of technologies that inhibit and discourage movement run deeply in our work and personal lives, impacting our creativity, vitality, and happiness.
I’ve always been a mover. As a kid, I danced around the living room and competed as a figure skater. In my 20s, modern dance and living and skiing in the mountains of Colorado. Landing in California, I discovered the dedicated yoga practice that took me from my 30s into my 50s. And still, my movement vocabulary narrowed as I grew more digital and aged.
Professionally, I’ve been an experience designer for over 25 years. That’s 25+ years of screen time. It’s also a 25-year span during which the boundaries between work and life have grown indistinct. A time before cell phones to a moment that finds us checking our mobile devices between 47–86 times per day. My own life has, of course, paralleled these changes.
In 2015, I’d taken on a new role with the U.S. Digital Service when my body began to exhibit some surprising symptoms. Six months in, I could only painfully touch a keyboard. Eventually, a physical therapist impressed upon me that I would not heal until I stopped working and to be more specific until I stopped sitting in front of a screen all day. Depending on the doctor, I had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome or Cervical Spinal Stenosis and to add in a layer of auto-immune hormonal dysfunction, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
This made absolutely no sense to me. I was someone who had always been able to push my body through pain but this strategy was no longer working. In LaMothe’s view, I was dancing poorly and this pain-denying behavior, “narrows our creativity and undermines our ability to become ourselves.” I couldn’t describe my state more clearly. Depressed and exhausted, I’d lost myself to a dark-pattern that included hours of screen time, plane flights, multi-tasking, and limited movement. After much convincing, I went out on disability which in many ways is where this story begins.
Why did my body rebel at this point? What had changed? In retrospect, the nature of my work had shifted from focused creative time to one of constant interruptions from multiple email accounts, forums, and slack channels, along with managing numerous alliances, meetings, and travel with no time for deep work. My mind, normally nourished by the flow of dense attention, felt fragmented and fogged. My nervous system was jacked. Nicholas Carr speaks to this sense of distraction in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He builds a case illustrating how internet use and other digital practices alter how we consume and produce information, which ultimately leads to physical changes in our brains. Carr connects the speed and grazing style of digital consumption with a reduced ability to focus deeply. Clearly, I had hit a personal threshold and my body/brain was in overload.
Illness often functions as an inflection point. I never did go back to that job. I spent six months just beginning to heal. I explored widely during that time: diet, bodywork, meditation, and Feldenkrais movement. But the core of this story is how rediscovering dance reoriented everything for me.
I am a body drawing in space in synch with sound. No planning, no remorse, no thinking, I feel exactly what is next. Patterns shifting, spinning, meeting air. Clear. Simple. Refreshed.
What is the knowledge of movement?
“Movement is everywhere. It is what we know and how we learn. It is how we sense and how we respond. It is what we do without thinking and what we do when we are thinking. It is the source of who we are and the agent of who we are becoming.” — Kimmer LaMothe
I hadn’t walked into a dance class in over 30 years. When I finally got up the nerve to go to NIA, I was miserable, ecstatic and painfully awkward. The wiring between my body and brain was stiff and disconnected. The gap between knowing how I could move and the reality of how I was moving was vast. I was exactly where I needed to be. The more I danced the more I felt myself coming back to life, and not just physically; I sensed my intelligence opening and engaging with the world around me. I was, as LaMothe describes, “sensing and responding along the path of my best bodily becoming” informed by dance. I was healing.
Dance in a variety of forms became a daily practice. Prioritizing movement, however, provoked a return to questions that had occupied me as a graduate student in sculpture. My time at CCA was spent investigating the effects of digital technology on the body as I rolled out of the culture of the first dot com boom. I had read Hales work on “how information lost its body” in the late 90s, but my thinking had expanded, informed by another 20 years of screen time and industry experience, as well as new developments in science and the humanities. Neuroplasticity, in contrast to earlier perspectives, confirmed that our brains were always capable of change for the good or bad and that our digital behaviors were having both effects. Combining this with LaMothe’s thesis on dance/movement as critical to human unfolding, my relationship with digital technology finally started to make sense. I had minimized the activity that was my creative source and body/brain was in revolt!
I have always moved to think, my best ideas coming the moment I left a conference room and walked down the hall, or solutions that arrived sideways when I left the studio for a walk outside. I was a kinesthetic maker. I saw that the way I used technology along with the technologies I was designing did not always contribute to my wellbeing or the wellbeing of others. The question that remained was how might privileging movement shift our relationship with digital technologies and inform what and how we design.
What might dance/movement informed technology be?
The concept of “ecokinetic knowledge” as discussed by LaMothe serves as one guide for this exploration. Ecokinetic intelligence knows to move in ways that grow health, healing, connection. It helps us to resist oppression and strive for a reciprocal relationship with the environment. Technologies inspired by these principles might be radically different than our current approaches. I imagine tools that increase our physical strength and grace, perform seamless transformations from human thought directly to media and amplify our senses to bring us closer to the world around us.
Sharing conceptual roots with LaMothe, computer scientist, Kristina Höök, has laid out a framework for a body-based design practice in her recent book, Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design. Höök like LaMothe contrasts her perspective against the dominant approach that privileges language and the intellect. Höök seeks to define a practice that engages the body and movement as primary source and, “addresses the whole self, body, and mind as one.” The work outlines the theoretical background for soma design and investigates types of movement practices that build “Soma” understanding or capabilities such as Feldenkrais Movement in practitioners. Höök shares specific example designs from her lab which reveal the process of their making and help her to shape a methodology for a body based design practice. Most importantly, the book is a rallying cry to bring our “whole selves” back into the things we create so that we can live better lives.
Currents of this are surfacing across various fields. Prosthesis design continues to grow more sophisticated, weaving together engineering and the brain toward a super-hero future in which we speed across distance, easily lift heavy objects and return function to the injured. What might we gain as we develop super-human movement through an ecokinetic or soma design lens? Would we develop exoskeletons to aid disaster relief workers or change our brains through the perspective of individual flight? What is technology that amplifies the movements that make us human?
Body/Brain Interfaces are already under development by companies like Kernal and Neurolink. These neuroprosthesis hold the promise of correcting faulty brain/body function, increasing our learning speed and “unlocking the secrets of telepathy.” They also hold massive potential for reducing our screen time and getting us back out moving in the world.
Cyborg dancer, Moon Ribas, melds these themes seamlessly in her practice. Ribas has sensors on her body that vibrate with variable intensity in response to seismic activity anywhere on the planet. This extra sense acts as the catalyst for the “sensing and responding” that becomes her dance. Ribas, calls this her seismic sense and feels it brings her closer to the earth and nature.
Possible Futures/ The Empathy Interface
Inspired by this framework I envision platforms that increase our awareness of systems throughout the planet. We could wear clothing that spikes our temperature as the ice caps melt, a vest that produces an uncomfortable sense of fullness as plastic fills the ocean, a sound system that grows discordant in response to interrupted whale song or one that delivers a burst of oxytocin as endangered species increases in population. Creating and mapping new senses to the world beyond makes these challenges real and present. It opens the door to generating visceral empathy that drives action.
What if we had teams of people wearing these systems? The whale tribe, guardians of the rivers, watchers of the sky, groups who experience the changes to the planet as part of their quotidian experience, how much more aware and activist would these witnesses be? We can develop technologies that are an interface for empathy but to do so we need to interrogate our motivations and consider the consequences for each new technology as a normal and necessary part of the design process.
Of course, these speculative designs prompt more questions than I’m able to answer just yet. What is the correspondence for data aggregated slowly over time, how does it appear as an impactful body-based experience? What is the input and feedback loop for positive human behavior? What is the reward? How do we catalyze a virtuous cycle? How do we create systems that also account for basic human needs as we look to the wellbeing of larger systems? How can these movement informed designs grow awareness of the interrelationship between our whole selves and the world around us? How can this become the work of design?
And if this is the work of design then how might cultures need to shift? How can we move this pursuit forward and support ourselves? B-Corps, not-for-profit design think tanks or organizations that play the Google 80–20 game while focused on design for empathy and compassion are all possibilities. Movement informed design as a co-design methodology could be used within communities to develop projects that create both economic viability and positive change. As I step back into design and coaching I’m left trying to shape a practice that balances these needs. I recognize that moving is a critical source of insight, inspiration, and wellbeing and I’m trying to shape a model that keeps this awareness at the center. I’m just at the beginning!
We may have set information free but we’ve imprisoned the body in its service. We are at a critical moment for the planet as we consider how we co-evolve with technology. We can continue to develop systems that increase isolation, domination and inequity or we can shift direction. My own experience has me celebrating that which makes me feel most alive. I’m excited to envision technologies that amplify that which makes us most human and to integrate the wisdom of the moving, sensing, body back into our lives.