APA symposium – an overview of my PhD on participatory sense-making

Annika Lübbert, on Interactive Games and Playful Academics

I argue that understanding requires both information (abstraction, embodiment) and exploration (dialogue, listening, facing the unknown). To ‘know well’, it then takes practices that encourage open-ended dialogue between diverse perspectives, just as it takes continuation, repeated observation and systematic analysis. In my presentation, I develop this perspective in relation to laboratory experiments and initiatives to co-create alternative spaces of knowing (alas knowing/research as participatory sense-making). 

Knowledge – grounded in the body, 
prepared, together, to dive and settle, 
align, rattle –
again and again, 
in the ways, webs and realities of our time

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 them 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.. to be calm enough to wait for an impulse or impression to arise. 

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) – we form practices, entire systems of meaning and knowing, doing. We create and sustain our sense of reality and possibility 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 the idea of embodied cognition. In both settings, we invite two people to come to the lab and play a game together at the computer. Meanwhile, we ask them to fill in questionnaires about their personality and to rate their experience, we record their brain activity, their movements, and behaviour in the game. Once we have all this information gathered, we look at interdependencies. We ask, for example, whether participants’ experience can be predicted from how they move and act in the game, from how different their personalities are. The outcome of this work is essentially stories about cognition that bring diverse methods of studying human behaviour in dialogue, and thus describe it as an embodied activity influenced by a variety of factors.

As I was working on these experiments, my interest shifted: from a focus on 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 of mine – Katrin Heimann and Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez – we then developed a toolbox that we call the ‘Playful Academic’. It is a set of scores that we designed to make other forms of knowing available to our work as researchers. The scores invite you to play with rhythm, spatial arrangement, awareness of the body, the environment and others present. To notice and go where you feel attracted (safe, autonomous), to interact closely with what surrounds you, explore spontaneously and be surprised by what you create – possibly eager to continue exploring. The scores also invite personal reflection: why am I doing this work? But also: what exactly am I experiencing, as I read this piece of work-related text, sit at my desk, or move about in this laboratory space? Which memories and images come to mind, who do I feel like being.

The final ingredient I want to mention is the Mindful Researchers Initiative. To me, this group is about gathering and meeting as people who genuinely care to figure it out together: who is present – what do we need – which resources and spaces do we have (want to make) available – how can we collaboratively ‘garden’ such a shared space for practice together? As ‘gardeners’, we meet on a weekly basis, to offer regular (bi-weekly, online) events for researchers to meet and reflect in a supportive environment.

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 push for concrete grounds and consequences from within the considerable amount of openness, exploration and listening. When is it right to disengage or voice disagreement? When to use a particular framework, approach or tool? What is needed (now), for this to be a sustainable structure, that propels me/us/our environment into the future? To allow for our ideas, uncertainties or conflicting interests to become threads in the fabric of our routines and relations. 

More generally, what have I learned about the kind of skill it takes for 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..

Dual MSc Brain and Mind Sciences
PhD student at the Department of Neurophysiology and Pathophysiology, UKE, Hamburg, Germany
annikalueb@wearethefuture.net // an.luebbert@uke.de