In collaboration with Mary Rees, Willeke Rietdijk and Wolfgang Lukas
Annika Lübbert, on Interactive Games and Playful Academics – or: a PhD on studying, facilitating and embodying participatory sense-making
I believe that understanding requires embodiment (sustained, motivated engagement), exploration (dialogue, listening, facing the unknown) and information (precision, systematic observation, integration). To ‘know well’ (with rigour, response- and sustain-ability), it then takes practices that encourage open-ended encounter of diverse perspectives, just as it takes focus, commitment and repetition (familiarisation, trust). In my presentation, I develop this perspective based on my work in the lab, as well as within initiatives for supportive and genuine forms of academic collaboration (alas knowing/research as participatory sense-making).
Knowledge – grounded in the body,
prepared, together, to dive and settle,
to create bridges of time
webs of rhythms
steps that rhyme
out of the void
organs and dreams envision
lush plan(t)s, moist soil
we rush to pause
dig a handful
feel the moment
When I think of ‘enactive approaches to studying mind and behaviour’, the image of a circle comes to mind. Of two opposites – poles, a paradox – in relation. One way to describe this is as (1) the tendency to know, to hold on to ideas, rules, expectations or plans, and (2) the tendency to let go, discover, recognise from within, sense into a moment.. be calm enough to sense an impulse or impression as it arises.
I also think of interdependence: of forms that only emerge (out of the larger whole) when somebody comes along with a certain interest, a motivated perspective, a proposal. How we develop a language around things that matter to us (exist as matter for us) – how we form practices, entire systems of meaning and doing (of knowing) around them. Our sense of reality and possibility is created and sustained in a community of practice that spans individual minds and bodies, social relations, ecosystems, cultures, industries.
In my PhD, I performed two experiments that pick up on this idea of an embodied and situated intelligence. In both settings, two people (often medical students, sometimes artists, sometimes others) come to the lab and play a game together at the computer. Meanwhile, I ask them to fill in questionnaires about their personality and to rate their experience during the game (is this engaging? do you agree with your partner, do you find their behaviour predictable?). I also record their brain activity, finger/hand-movements, and behaviour on the task/game. Once I had all this information gathered, my colleague and I looked at interdependencies. We asked, for example, whether participants’ experience can be predicted from how they move and act in the game, or from how different their personalities are (yes!). The outcome of this work are essentially stories about cognition that bring diverse methods or tools to study human behaviour into a dialogue, and thus describe it as an embodied activity influenced by a variety of factors.
As I worked on these experiments, my interest shifted: from studying embodied / enactive cognition, towards the wish to facilitate and enable the embodied, situated and relational basis of cognition – in and outside of the lab.
With two colleagues – Katrin Heimann and Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez – I then developed a toolbox that we call the ‘Playful Academic‘. It is a set of scores designed to make other forms of knowing and a playful mode of exploration available to our work as researchers. The scores involve rhythm, spatial arrangement, awareness of the body, the environment and others present. They invite us to notice and go where we feel attracted (safe, autonomous), to interact closely with what surrounds us, explore spontaneously and be surprised by what we create – possibly eager to continue exploring. The scores also access personal experience and support reflection: What exactly do I experience, as I read this work-related piece of text, sit at my desk, or move about in this laboratory space? Which memories and images come to mind, who do I feel invited to be here? Which aspects of my project or collaboration fuel my work, motivate and engage me?
The final ingredient I want to mention is the Mindful Researchers initiative. In this group, we gather and meet as people who genuinely care to figure it out together: who is present – what do we need – which resources and spaces do we have (or want to make) available – how can we collaboratively ‘garden’ a supportive space of academic practice? As ‘gardeners’ we meet on a weekly basis – to plan and offer (bi-)weekly online events and a monthly newsletter to a larger community of researchers.
How do I feel that these approaches move into an interesting, worthwhile direction?
In the lab experiments, I pushed for open-endedness and voluntary contribution (fun, choices, not 95% predetermined course of events). I also interviewed participants, and we integrated their perspective in our data-analysis. In the second experiment, I started to develop more care for the experimental space (to be cleared of unnecessary equipment, more welcoming/appealing), switched the setting from sitting to standing, offered an opportunity to note one’s overall state in a bodily/spatial reference frame (via magnets on a board), and made my research methods more transparent to participants. I also began to reflect on my state during the data collection as a part of the research process.
In the initiatives, in turn, I learn to prepare and co-facilitate so as to be ready to respond to needs and possibilities in the moment. To look for walkable grounds and sustainable opportunities from within a considerable amount of openness, exploration and listening. I also develop sensitivity for when it is right to pause, tell a different story, or disengage all together (for a while). My sense is that this work involves (requires?) our diverse personal doubts and abilities, to build sustainable structures – a fabric of routines and relations that welcomes our ideas, uncertainties and conflicting interests, and propels me/us/our environment into the future .-)
More generally, what do I think are important elements of participatory and dynamic forms of knowing?
- arriving, grounding and connecting with where you are now. (to notice subtle movements in experience, body, social/physical environment)
- using experiential language that allows everyone to stay part of the conversation: to voice the motivation (needs, values) and particular contexts that bring forth what we know. (to recognise, reflect and communicate lived perspectives among others)
- listening, practicing and becoming familiar with diverse others involved – meeting phenomena of interest in their habitat. (to resonate with diverse histories and modalities of knowing)
- experiment and play, developing flexibility. (to 1. (notice and go where I) feel safe and autonomous, let go of expected or given sets of rules; 2. interact closely with the environment (the diversity of people, tools or other materials around), explore spontaneously, be surprised about what ‘we create together’; 3. enjoy a heightened sense of competence, agency and the wish to continue exploring; see Heimann & Roepstorff, 2018)
- harvesting no-go zones, playing with extremes / figure-ground-dynamics (ask A, ask notA) – – if some other is really important, they are part of “me” – – accept, let sink, arise – – practice just listening – – no need for words, reaction – – develop strategies on the fly – – explore – try out one way/response or another – – start from what is here – – expand what’s on the table – – stay curious, ready to arrive in the next moment – – what space do I engender? – – be ware of your creative powers.. move from fertile mental grounds..