Sensation + Social Cognition Research

Sensation + Social Cognition Research – © erinbell – 2019
(documentation Stage 1. Documentation Stage 2.)

Part 1.
I. About this Research
II. What is a Sensation-Based Interview?!
III. Sensation-Based Interviews as Related to Other Modes of Qualitative Research
IV. E Cognition and Future Research Interest

Part 2. WHY do this?! What’s the Point of Sensation Based Interviews?!


I. About this Research
I investigate how people make sense of themselves, the world and others. I investigate this “sense making” via holding group improvisation labs. After the lab, I sit down with each participant. The two of us select a moment from the lab improvisation to investigate in detail. The style of interview used is unusual; its primary focus deals with the sensations that the participant experienced during the lab. I refer to this as a sensation-based interview (SBI). Many researchers working in similar ways use the term phenomenological to describe this style of investigation. A few projects from cognitive science which inform or are related to my work include: Neurophenomenology, Nummenmaa Lab, Observatory, Micro-phenomenology, PRISMA l’EXplicitation, Laboratorio de Fenomenologia Corporal. My documentation of SBI interviews can be found HERE. Last, my experience in performance and my somatic praxis in particular, influence this research immensely.

II. What is a Sensation-Based Interview?!
A patient at a Dr.’s office is often asked to describe what they are experiencing. Maybe they are asked “what number do you rate your pain on a scale from 1 – 10?” Maybe they’re asked, “where do you feel the pain?” Or, “is it a sharp or dull pain?”

Yet, when we go to describe the rest of our experience in terms of sensation-based descriptions, we are often lost. This seems to be a simple idea but difficult to understand. Imagine a Dr. visit scheduled for when you felt well rather than in pain. The Dr. might ask, “on a scale of 1-10, how much wellness do you feel?” Or, “Is your wellness a sharp or dull feeling?” “where do you feel your wellness?”

Each moment of our lives feels like something. Some moments are rather dream-like, abstract; we have a sense of something but when we reach for words to describe it this something vanishes like a fist-full of fog. Sensation-based interviews are a bit like the Dr.’s office questionnaire wherein graspable descriptions tend to emerge about how life feels.

Before going further, let me clarify what I mean by sensation. I believe that my use of sensing and sensation is similar to Anotonio Damasio’s use of the term feeling. That is, I am working with the idea that all experience – whether it is classified as a thought, emotion, a physical sensation, or something else – happens within the context of living with-in a body. As such, many aspects of our life can be felt.

I often think of ice fishing as a helpful way to talk about the importance of sensations: ice fishers will often drill a hole in the ice, drop a lure attached to a flag pole, then wait. Once a fish has bitten, the flag pole attached to that lure raises up automatically. I find that the graspable information emergent in SBIs can function similar to such a flag. The description of sensation can work as a signal, helping us to figure out where/how to direct further neuro/cognitive observation of implicit body-waters.

These days a lot of people have heard of brain studies using fMRI machines. Such science reports often sound something like, “We found that primed group A exhibited significantly reduced right amygdala activity during negative emotion processing compared to control group B.” Similarly, I am interested in: how do different parts of our bodies significantly change or “light up” during this-or-that moment of life? Yet, my investigation does not explicitly look at amygdalas or other parts of brains. Rather, my research follows what “lights up” in terms of what sensations a person experiences.


III. Sensation-Based Interviews as Related to Other Modes of Qualitative Research

Many qualitative questionnaires tend to focus on emotional experience, with questions such as, “on a scale of 1-10, how connected did you feel to the other participants during…“? Or they focus on theory of mind, with questions about “putting oneself in the others’ shoes“. Some researchers find it important to determine whether a sensation should be classified as a thought, emotion, or otherwise. These are just a few examples of focus found in qualitative research.

I want to make clear: I find many modes of research to be worthwhile! SB descriptions provide a different type of information than most qualitative questions. Here, I am trying not to disparage other modes of research. I AM suggesting that these varied modes of research are different, and that they can work together, bringing forth a richer picture of the various layers of experience.

To clarify, here are a few layers that can be investigated during any given moment of experience:
* We can research quantifiable data (such as heart rate, amygdala activity, etc),
* We can research a person’s narrative of emotion, thought-meaning, theory of mind or similar (such as, “I felt happy“, or “I felt she did not want to engage with me“, “I felt connected with him at a level 5 on a scale of 1-10 …“, or “I felt that way because…“, or “I saw his hand and I began to think about my father…“)
* We can research sensation (such as, “I felt the front part of my head activated. It felt like there was a storm going on. Zigzags moving in every direction, very fast.“)

Dancers, somatic practitioners, meditators, martial artists, and more – many of these practitioners are well versed in the realm of micro sensations. With years of experience in their respective fields, they can sense into any given moment of life with a great deal of nuance. In my own research I have found that SBIs are particular in that detailed descriptions of sensations often emerge when working with lay people and expert sensing practitioners alike. In other words, one need not be an expert to participate in this style of research. (One caveat here: In order for SB descriptions to emerge, I do find it to be extremely helpful that the SB interviewer is a practitioner of some form of nuanced sensing.)


IV. E Cognition and My Future Research Interests

In general I am interested in such questions as: How do we make sense of the world? Can we learn more about how we think-feel-function so that we can live in a way that is full of more personal, social – ecological – ease and calm-vitality? I am working with the idea that cognition is a full-body action. That is, we don’t just use our brain to understand-make sense of the world; rather, one’s entire organism is involved in the process of understanding/making sense of-with our world. [Here are a few writings which explain a bit about E Cognition: The Enactive Approach, Can Social Interaction Constitute Social Cognition? and the 4E Cognition group.)



WHY do this?! What’s the Point of Sensation Based Interviews?!

The shortest answer to this question is: I have a hunch there is something important to be learned by researching a sensation-description layer. For a longer reply, below I note some specific ways that I can imagine this type of information may be useful in cognitive research. Hopefully my examples will stir your own imagination and curiosity, bringing forth new perspectives on research.

* SB interviews may be a useful design step for cognition experiments. That is, by gaining detailed information about where and how felt-activation occurs in a person during a given task before an experiment is completely designed, a researcher may be better equipped to understand how/which and where to place quantitative recording devices. To say this another way, this possibility would be to follow the flags of sensation to the location/region most activated. Then the researchers might assemble an appropriate interdisciplinary team, as related to the body region of felt-activation. Such a “following the flag” design method can be contrasted with heading straight to a pre-determined recording device/body region, such as fMRI.

* In general, I feel that SB interviews can fertilize the ideological soil of researchers interested in moving away from brain-centric views of cognition, towards social-ecological-relational-implict-E cognition research.

In the same way that paying attention to where a brain “lights up” can foster better understanding of cognition (aka how an organism is making sense with-in their world) – paying great attention to where sensation “lights up” in bodies can help us better understand how people make sense with-in our world.

* Many science studies demonstrate a strong corroboration between chronic loneliness and development of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, lung disease, or stroke. Perhaps by paying close attention to where/how loneliness is felt, new insights may emerge about how cardiovascular disease, lung disease, etc begin to form.

If a proper study was possible, would we be able to find meaningful correlations in the ways that affective experience is sensed in the body? For example, when a person experiences loneliness/alienation/disconnection – what can be learned by asking: in the area of the body that is sensation-activated during this experience, what is going on with this organ or tissue region, long before a cardiovascular disease has emerged? How-why-what’s the relationship between a loneliness/alienation/disconnection experience and a body area which is felt strongly? Or, what correlations exist between activated sensation and activated quantifiable data during an experience of loneliness, etc?

* I see SB descriptions as a way to enrich investigations which focus on wellness (such as research dealing with mindfulness, nature exposure, active movement, or broad research such as Stanford’s Wellness Living Laboratory project) One might ask, during a moment of experienced wellness, how are sensation-activated areas of one’s body related to quantified activation? Or, in broad studies, if researchers compare any number of activities that often bring forth an experience of wellness (such as nature exposure, tai chi, hatha yoga, conscious breathing, etc) – are there any significant consistencies about how or where sensation activation occurs?

I suspect that sensation information can be a helpful layer in the ongoing development of precision healthcare; SB research may help illuminate how-why any given wellness practice may be more or less suited to a particular individual. Scientific validity of specific wellness practices will continue to be extremely influential in areas such as determining how children are taught in schools, bringing forth more options in clinical offerings/prescriptions, and in expanding the sorts of wellness practices covered by state/health insurance companies.

* Some studies look towards bodily synchronicity as a way to explore how particular movements relate to an experience of social bonding (As in L. Noy et al.’s research of synchronization of heart rate or K.Yun et al. study of synchronized gait.) When I read these studies I remember my own, long history of improvisation in group performance.

In my own experience singing in harmony brings forth a greater feeling of social bonding than does singing in unison. So, I wonder, if my heart rate is synchronized with my fellow singer more readily when we are singing the same notes, what bodily movement/sensation relates to my overall experience of “stronger bonding during harmony singing”? And, how do the felt dynamics (sensations) relate to the quantifiable data?

* I speculate that the emergent information from SBIs can add an important layer of depth to research dealing with movement – such as phase transition studies (ie JAS Kelso et al), and in research dealing with the correlations between movement and thinking-emotional-affect (such as work by H. Blake and M. Batson, N. Myers, C. Streeter et al, etc.) I understand the implications of movement-thinking-emotions research to be particularly important for cultural shifting in educational formats and health insurance inclusivity.

* For those interested in environmental aspects of sense making, I believe SB descriptions can open new horizons of research. For example, whether we are investigating an interaction between a person and a tree or a building, some aspects of our interaction are quantifiable (such as noting the shift of air temperature between the two bodies.) Looking into sensation layers of such an interaction may, again, work as a “flag”, pointing us which way to head for further research. As well, I am compelled to ask: when a person experiences a pleasant feeling or repulsion when in contact with an aspect of their environment (such as a building or tree) how does their SB information correlate with any quantifiable data?

Such research may have synergistic effects when related to other enviromental/nature research, such M.Gagliano‘s work, G. Chevalier et als research dealing with “earthing”, architecture studies, or Stanford‘s nature effect studies. SB interviews may help us better understand how we make sense together-with our environment.




Much of this research contributes to and is informed by my somatic-embodiment work.

Also related: Somatic Dance is Woo. Meditation is Serious – What Warrants Scientific Study and Why?


All materials on this website © erin christine bell 2019.