What is-What’s the Point of Sensation Based Interviewing?!

  • erinbell – 2019

In the work presented here I am investigating what it feels like to be in a moment of social interaction. Roughly speaking my research works like this: two people interact during a group improvisation. Later I make a sensation-based interview with each of them, individually. In each interview we explore the same moment of interaction, looking for graspable words, to describe the sensations they felt during that interaction. Last, I create an analysis form, looking at their sensation-based experiences side-by-side.

Wtf 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.

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 one’s world. [more on “E cognition” here.]

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 (similar work is often referred to as phenomenological.)

Dancers, somatic practitioners, meditators, martial artists, and more – many of these people/practitioners are well versed in the endless world of micro sensations.They have years of experience in their respective fields, “sensing.” I have found that SB interviews are able to bring forth a great amount of detailed sensation information, even with those who are not experts in the field of micro-sensations. (footnote more on this – I do feel it is extremely helpful if the interviewer has a decent amount of experience in sensing practice.)

Before going further, let me clarify what I mean by “sensation.” I believe that my use of sensing and sensation is equivalent/synonymous 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, much of what we experience can be felt,. (Below I articulate more of what/how one might describe a sensation of thinking, for example.)

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 SB (sensation-based) interviews 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 our further observation of implicit body-waters.

By focusing on describing sensation there is an automatic connection made between the fact of living with-in a body and the emotional or mental experience underway. It is a certain type of bridge. For example, if I am interested in researching affective experience during a moment of “connection” with another, we can follow the “flags” of sensation to learn more about the relationship between the emotional/mental experience and the related bodily movement. The sensation flags tell a particular story about an “experience of connection” as it relates to one’s body during (embodied) cognitive-process.

I have found that many qualitative questions 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 are interested in determining whether a sensation should be classified as a thought, emotion, etc. 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, to name 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 united with him at a level 5…”, “I felt that way because…”, or “then 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 with zigzags moving in every direction, very fast.”)

So, why this specific focus on sensation descriptions?! I hope this will be clarified in the following section.



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

The shortest answer to this question is, because of the direct connection between felt-bodily movement and mental/emotional experience, I have a hunch there is something important to be learned by researching a sensation-description layer. For the longer reply, 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 in 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 (as felt by the human participating in the experiment.) 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 – especially those interested in moving away from brain-centric views of cognition, towards embodied (social-ecological-relational) cognition research. In the same way that we pay great attention to where a brain “lights up” in an effort to better understand how an organism is making sense with-in the world, we can also investigate via paying great attention to where sensation occurs throughout our body. (footnote later: sensing outside of one’s body, into the world/ ecological-relational cognition…*). A shifting of investigation-gaze can bring forth new perspectives, ideas, questions about how to understand cognition.

*One interesting question to me is to ask, how-why-what’s the relationship between where/how a person feels and an experience of loneliness/alienation/disconnection or an experience of connection/togertherness? If a proper study was possible, would we be able to find meaningful similarities 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? 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.

*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 varied activities that often bring forth an experience of wellness (such as nature exposure, hatha yoga, conscious breathing, etc) – are there any significant consistencies about how or where sensation activation occurs? I suspect that sensation information can be useful in understanding more about why-and-which activities promote an experience of wellness in many people but not in others (as can be seen in some sitting meditation responses.) I speculate that incorporating sensation descriptions into wellness focused research may bring forth greater scientific understanding about current wellness-promoting activities/practices, and/or novel ideas of how to design future research. Scientific validity in these areas will continue to be extremely influential in areas such as how children are taught in schools, bringing forth more options in clinical offerings/prescriptions, and expand the sorts of wellness practices covered by health insurance companies.

left off here…


*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. I am aware that singing in harmony brings forth a greater experience of social bonding than does singing in unison. So, I ask, what are the sensation that when I have during an experience of social bonding?! If my heart rate is synchronized with my fellow singer more readily when we are singing the same notes, what bodily movement/sensation relate to my overall experience of “less bonded when singing in unison”? How do the felt dynamics relate to the quantifiable movement?

*If one is exploring how movement/posture relates to thinking (or to scientific research, such as in Natasha Myers’ Rendering Life Molecular), or if one is wanting to learn more about how the micro movements of thinking feel as a way to investigate neuronal synchronization, oscillation or phase transitions of any organ in a body – I speculate that the emergent information from SB interviews will add an important layer of depth to such questions.

*SB interviews may help us better understand how we make sense together-with our environment. Plant cognition is emerging as a serious study in science. I suggest that SB interviews can help us feel-into how humans actively make sense with plants when we are in interaction. That is, humans are able to sense things both inside of our skin and sense elements about the world outside of our skin – such as feeling temperature or if the air around oneself feels still or windy. I speculate that, again, by using the flags of sensation, we may gain more clues about how and where to study more – in order to understand better how we are actively making sense with-in our environment.


WHAT is “graspable”?

Last I articulate a bit more about what sort of information I find to be “graspable.” Along with the where, or location, I present several categories which feel equally compelling. My categorizing hope here is not to cement down certain labels in perpetuity; rather my goal is to lightly, flexibly label categories as they seem useful to this research. For each category I provide a brief description, and I note a few reasons why this information may be useful.

When I have an experience that I call anxiety I do not sense that this stress-feeling is located down the street. I feel it close. Sometimes I feel it behind me, sometimes inside of me. Sometimes I can get very precise about where I feel. For example, during a moment I’d call excitement, I have felt a tingling sensation on the outer edges of my body. On another occasion I have felt a strong sensation that seemed to be located in the middle of my body, touching my lower spine on the right side. Going to the doctor they often ask “where does it hurt?” Sensation based interviews ask, “where do you feel?”

Movement Qualities: Fast, slow, jumping around, steady, downward, to the right…

Similar to noticing that there is a sense of location involved with a sensation, there are also movement dynamics felt. Say I feel excited. I notice that this experience of excitement feels to be moving quickly. I feel it move like old-TV screen static. It’s not heading up or down, it’s flittering all around, lightly, playfully. Or, when I investigate an experience of social nervousness, I found that an area of my body closes in. This directionality, towards the center of my body, was not gentle in the way that one might close their hand to cup a tiny kitty. Rather, the movement dynamic I experienced was fast, both stiff and shaky, my tonality felt primed-to-protect.

Speed, directionality, smoothness, pulse, these are all examples of graspable bits of information. Even when speaking of stillness, or a lack of movement-feeling, there is a world of information that can emerge. Feeling frozen in fear is distinctly different than feeling a type of calm stillness by a pond, for example. Typically one must be a dancer, somatic practitioner or meditator in order to develop nuanced skills of sensing into/feeling the micro movements of being alive. Yet, SB interviews can bring forth particular movement qualities from everyday people/non-sensing practitioners.

I understand movement to be an inherent aspect of nature. A piece of this same fabric, our bodies, our tissues, too, are constantly in motion. As Maxine Sheets-Johnstone puts it, “we are precisely not stillborn.” Antonio Damasio highlights humans’ micro movement with his promotion of the term homeodynamic. How do movement dynamics relate to cognition?

As Francisco Varela notes, “reason is what occurs at the very last stage of the moment-to-moment emergence …you can [feel] the emergence as it happens. It starts out from this soup, the entire organism in situation.” SB interviews highlight the idea that the entire body is in action during the process of cognition.

Temperature, Shape + Otherwise.
To be honest, location and movement dynamics are the most clear categories for myself. That said, of potentially equal importance (even if rather unclear of how to wrap my mind around) many interviewees mention aspects such as temperature or shape in their sensation descriptions.

For example, let’s say I describe myself as happy and I am experiencing sensation in my chest. I can look, where are the boundaries of this feeling of happiness? Are there sharp boundaries or does the sensation just sort of fade away at the edges. Are the edges jagged or rounded? Does the area of the feeling of happiness have a shape?
Or, maybe I cannot tell the shape but I describe the feeling of happiness as warm. What does this warm feel like? What’s this sense of warmness like compared to being near a stovetop flame?

Internal Sounds, Abstracts thoughts, etc.
Even further from my understanding of what/how to handle this information, many people mention internal sounds, and, almost always people note an experience of thinking abstract thoughts which do not yet have solid words attached. Again, an example to clarify a bit: when I go to describe what a sensation of excitement feels like, sometimes this involves sensing internal noises or sounds. It may be that the word “yes!” is loud and clear, or that there is a sound like “jeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” felt inside of me. In experiences of abstract thought, I will leave this to the interviews themselves to clarify further.



Last, if sensation descriptions are meaningful for any future understanding of cognition, this will be fantastic. but remains to be seen just why-what-for-how they can be integrated into cognitive research. From my many interview I have found that the vast majority of people interviewed note that the experience has been something like therapy. That is, the interview process helped them to understand their own life in a new, meaningful way. I do not claim in anyway that this is a therapeutic process. What I do claim is that, for those scientist interested in taking care of the people involved in experiments, their may be something in this process for you to investigate.


















footnotes/still to sort through…working working draft land

Proposing that sensation flags, or other trail signs, are a reasonable compass for cognitive investigations is far from claiming that what we feel is always “True”. Much like quantitative data does not reveal the entire “Truth” of an investigation-question, neither do our felt experience descriptions. This incredible capacity to feel, to sense our experience, to be able to report some graspable descriptions of our sensation-based experience, all of this intuitively feels to be quite rich research information.


For those interested in ToM, emotional experience or other ways of describing experience, I write about this below.

why not talk about emotional experience, so asks several friends. well, it’s cool, it’s just not my thing. (i think the story narratives tend to distract us from listening more carefully to the direct sensation’s story.) soc cog research which deals with ToM. same as above. soc cog research which deals with “togetherness” (so far, from what i have seen, this seems linked to emotional experience interest. again, cool; not my thing.)

The blurry line between hard data and quantitative data. Both seem important. I don’t even feel interested in drawing a hard line between them. I feel interested in saying – some information feels more useful to me than other information. If you tell me you have an experience of “togetherness” with another person I don’t really know what to do with that information in regards to understanding more about how social or ecological cognition works. (assuming that i already believe that the body works in a feedback loop of information, with the enviro.)

Future – in my language, plant cognition, particle (quantum) cognition etc…

SB descriptions are different than ToM or emotional narratives, broadly speaking. In my work I intend to draw bubbles with diffuse, overlapping edges for these categores, rather than hard lines between them. (perhaps something similar to the way whatshisface talks about pattern of self?) the reason i am most interested in s rather than emotional/narrative/ToM description is because…}


Analysis Categories:
A. Region Sensed Within/Including the Boundary of the Skin
B. Region Sensed Beyond the Boundary of the Skin
C. Movement Qualities Sensed
D. Other Qualities Sensed

E. Thought/Abstract words sensed


neurofeedback – why not heartfeedback? there are many times that i experience sensations in my head

stop trying to be martin. you are not martin. i tried to have a partner i love. that didnt work. i tried to make a living doing what feels nourishing, that didnt work. i tried to find a clump or art partnership, that didnt work.

0103A 0103B

A. Region Sensed Within/Including the Boundary of the Skin
Phase 1

– inside of my chest… fleshy bits
– on the inside… just a little point of something
– really middle… I don’t feel it in my back… more in the front… it stays like really inside the rib cage
– my chest and then this kind of thing inside… yellowy, shiny… it’s yellow, like light thing.
– torso area
– my skin
– back-shoulder, not in the head
– throughout [my body]

phase 2

– contact where 0103B… grabbed me [leg regions] – my arms
-the areas [of my body] that were touching her [arms, chest]
– [continuation of back-shoulder]

phase 3

– my head
– disconnects me from my body [*fn]
– my brain
– less clear where my body is in a way, and how I can move it. [*fn]
– on the inside… midline
– both of our bodies
– head
– kind of on the backside… muscle
– back and shoulders and neck and head
– feels like it’s coming from my head…this feeling of the head talking downwardly
– I felt a [micro-meter tense or still] in me

phase 4

EDIT -those sensations were in the arms first

B. Description of Region Sensed Beyond the Boundary of the Skin
phase 1

– I remember [0103B’s approach] fast and playful… the chest really approaching… a lot of energy, a bit chaotic, child-like… arms just… following – feeling of [shwooush]. It was definitely in front of me
– feeling [edit:name what i was feeling here] a bit.. past my skin too

C. Description of Movement Qualities Sensed

– calm, flowy… not super physical…like, “ah.”…super simple…really easy and really nice and soft
– sinking and melting…at the same time a bit of a spreading of energy…it kind of like melts
– like, “ahhh”…finds space…
– it goes a bit with the breath; that it moves also. Up and down…spread also
– like stuck between
– And then nothing happened and it was just kind of frozen.
– wanting to go with it is like…still very calm
– scanning…whole system for options…trying to be open…soft and calm and more investigating
– not wanting is very like rigid…suddenly very closed off…a bit more panicky
– can’t think clearly …a kind of chaos
– something bouncing all the way around …feels like there’s so many things…super fast and also like more things at the same time…
-my energy before…I was very happy for it to come out… suddenly like, “no.”… it was more an internal closing than a physical one…
– …how does it close?
– …everything more to the midline…
very much like a pull… torso area. Not in a sense from her but…as though water’s going this way. Like following…a feeling of being magnetized in that direction
– tingly …some sparkles…real light. Not any thing significant
– subtle…tension
– “burrrrrrrrrdhg, burrrrrrrrdhg, burrrrrrrrrrdhg!!”…it was definitely upward but more like a trampoline. You also have to go down but the big action is upward
– listening command had already been ignited

D. Description of Other Qualities Sensed

– image of my chest and then this kind of thing inside that’s more like yellowy, shiny…yeah, it’s yellow-like light thing.
– you…caught me in a way, with a lot of energy.
– took me by surprise
– I need to go with it, I need to do something with this. But I was like, “but I actually don’t really want to.”… I was, “aghhhhhh”… panic of like, “augh”… little bit of surprise feeling…
– just one thought that’s like, “no, no, no, no, no.” that kind of takes everything over …don’t allow anything else to come up and it becomes very like this panic where all clarity is gone…a bit like, “dagh.”
myself going, “Oh, we’re going…”
– some “yea-nugh” information.