Archives for the month of: June, 2013

By Daniel Eaves

Possible explanations for the psychological phenomenon of covert action simulation

When you observe another person’s action, it elicits an action simulation process in your brain, without involving overt movement. This action simulation is automatic, and can also bias the shape of your subsequent movements towards those that you have just seen… but why does this happen? There are at least three proposals, the third of which raises a particularly interesting question for the embodied approach:

  • Action simulation certainly guides us when intentionally imitating each other; and also underlies unconscious or unintended copying in social settings (Heyes, 2010).
  • Maybe it also allows us to understand other people’s actions from ‘the inside’. By grounding incoming perceptual information in the language of my own body schema, I would first understand how and why I would perform the action myself, and then speculate why you might do this too (Rizzolati & Sinigaglia, 2010). This embodied approach is nice; it links low-level sensorimotor and higher-order social processes in the brain. However, this proposal still needs more empirical support (see Prinz, 2006).
  • Finally, action prediction might be the key objective (Körding & Wolport, 2004). For example, expert basketball players predicted shot success better than novice players and expert observers (commentators and pundits), after seeing only the early stages of a basketball free-throw (Aglioti et al., 2008). Clearly prediction is useful for interacting (and surviving!) in everyday life, but it got me thinking… athletes face so many action possibilities in sport. If they are better at simulating, then why are they not more likely to be biased and/or fall for fake or dummy actions? Perhaps being better at simulating possible future actions, means you are also better at selecting between multiple action choices. If so, then how many actions can we ‘embody’ at one time?

Aglioti, S.M., Cesari, P. Romani, M. & Urgesi, C. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 1109-1116.

Heyes C. M. (2011). Automatic imitation. Psychological Bulletin 137, 463-483.

Körding K.P., Wolpert D.M. (2004). Bayesian integration in sensorimotor learning. Nature, 427:244-247.

Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 264-274.

Prinz, W. (2006). What re-enactment earns us. Cortex, 42 (4), 515-517.

By Victoria Grace Walden

Phenomenology, documentary and film experience (looking at two Holocaust documentaries)

There are few writers I find as fascinating as Vivian Sobchack. She continuously rethinks approaches to film studies by returning to the experience of the spectator. She is dissatisfied with the singularity approaches to film spectatorship. Instead she improves on Lacanian psychoanalysis by positioning herself and her theories firmly in the realm of the Real. Sobchack considers spectatorship as pluralist – not only accounting for the many different spectators, but the many different positions one individual can take during the same film.

In Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience, Sobchack gives non-Francophone individuals like me a rare opportunity to critique Jean-Pierre Meunier’s Les Structures de l’experience filmique: L’Identification filmique (1969). As Sobchack explains, Meunier identified three modes of film experience: the “home movie” (or “film-souvenir”), the “documentary” and the “fiction film”. Meunier places these modes in a hierarchy:

  • Fiction films encourage us mostly to fix our attention on the symbolic image and less on the world outside the frame.
  • Documentary positions us as learners where we compromise between our knowledge of the general subject and our partial lack of it.
  • Home-movies recall our memories of the existential subjects on screen and our experience of them in the lived world.

fiction documentary home movie

However, Sobchack develops Meunier’s theory by claiming that we are capable of switching between these different modes during the same film regardless of its genre. So we can begin to understand our experience of a film as a negotiation between the three modes, like this:

fiction documentary home movie Sobchack

I call upon two films from my own area of expertise here as examples:

Errol Morris’ The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr (1999)

Morris’ documentary details the extraordinary story of a small-town American man who went from fixing electric chairs to defending David Irving by providing “scientific evidence” that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were never used for extermination.

Morris’ film is as much noir as it is documentary. In the opening sequence chiaroscuro lighting, a wash of blue colour and a birdcage are used to symbolise the anti-hero status of Fred Leutchter. This is very much a sequence which positions me as experiencing the fictional.

Morris has noted that at an initial screening of the film several audience members started to consider Leuchter’s argument as truth. Wanting to avoid being tarred as a Holocaust denier, Morris subsequently re-edited his film adding a voiceover of a Holocaust historian. This addition makes me overtly aware of the documentary’s construction therefore I begin to question the film’s objectivity. It is a voice which does not belong to the story of Fred A. Leuchter. Its appearance seems contrived (suddenly being introduced halfway through the narrative). As my awareness to the film’s construction is heightened, I begin to pay more attention to the images as symbolic; as images I need to interrupt and analyse critically rather than images which teach me something about the world I live in. When the film has finished, I feel as if I am conflicted and confused about the “character” Fred A. Leuchter rather than feeling I have learnt something about Holocaust denial. Perhaps this is because my knowledge of the topic is relatively extensive? I am not dissatisfied with the experience though. It has been an intriguing character study, much as I expect Morris intended it to be.

Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010)

Hersonski attempts to layer voices in a similar vein to Morris. In her film, which shows footage shot by Nazi-commissioned filmmakers of the Warsaw Ghetto, she interrupts the archive footage with freeze frames, voiceovers and images of survivors watching the film in an auditorium. The freeze frames usually highlight the gaze of one of the inhabitants of the Ghetto. These images seem to talk directly to me like nothing I have ever experienced in archive footage. The effect turns the archival or documentary image into a construction, what we might consider to be a fictionalised image. I am forced, unnaturally to linger my gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time on the faces (and particularly the gaze toward me) of these human figures. This is not an experience I can relate to my lived world or my general understanding of the Holocaust – people were not frozen in time as living beings who could gaze at others, they were dehumanized and murdered. I remember the Holocaust as an absence while these images give the deceased victims a long-lasting presence, but an uncanny, still one.

Also, by including the sequences of survivors watching the film, Hersonski positions me in the auditorium with them which seems to imply that I must watch the film from their point-of-view. However, this is problematic because the survivors’ experience of the footage is reminiscent of Meunier’s “home-movie” or “film-souvenir”. The survivors recall recognising people in these images which fragment a past belonging to them. It seems this technique was used to encourage the spectator to empathise with the survivors, however, for me it had a disturbingly opposite effect. I do not cry when I see a survivor cry, in fact I dry up – I am unable to cry. I feel as if I am intruding on their experience of a memory – a “home-movie” which I was not part of.

With such experiences of documentaries, can we ever really call a film “non-fiction”?

Vivian Sobchack (1999) Toward a Phenomenology of Non-Fictional Film Experience in Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), ed. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 241-254.

An introduction to Biocca’s theory of ‘the phenomenal body’ and questions about its usefulness in emerging digital environments. 

In digital environments that involve an on-screen avatar, there appear to be two bodies to consider: the corporeal body through which we control the digital environment, and the digital body that appears to act upon the digital environment. Biocca (1997) has conceptualised the duality of the body across digital and non-digital environments as a constant tension or struggle to influence the phenomenal body, which can be thought of as our embodied presence in the world.


When we interact with digital environments, the phenomenal body arises as a result of experiences in both digital and non-digital domains via both the digital and the corporeal body. At times we may become so engrossed in a digital environments that our corporeal bodies are forgotten or rather, they become less important to the phenomenal body. Alternatively, if the digital body is unconvincing as a set of semiotic resources (e.g. as a result of lack of customizability), the phenomenal body will be more related to corporeal experience and less related to digital manifestations of the body.

What about in digital environments where there is no avatar? In tangible interfaces, the corporeal body influences both the physical and the digital world. The corporeal body controls (and is seen to be in control of) physical and digital representations. So in cases like this, is the corporeal body also the digital body, or has the distinction become an unnecessary or unhelpful one to make?

Biocca, F. (1997, August). The cyborg’s dilemma: Embodiment in virtual environments. Retrieved online 07.06.2013:

By Victoria Grace Walden

An exploration of our sense of embodiment in memorial spaces and how this relates to remembering the past.

In my MA thesis I outlined seven modes of Holocaust commemoration. One of these modes I called the “affective mode” which I defined as: “memorials designed to engage the spectator with a sensuous response to the Holocaust; memorials that provoke affect” (Walden, 2011).

One of the memorials I explored was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europäs, Berlin (The Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe).


I have visited this memorial on several occasions and every time it strikes me that it is impossible to make sense of this space cognitively. If one tries to analyse the geometric pattern of the memorial or the uneven shapes of the large blocks one is left perplexed than before attempting analysis. Walking through the confusing arena is a reflective but chaotic and uncomfortable experience.  The memorial’s designer Peter Eisenman says:

I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear… like going under water. Primo Levi talks about a similar idea in his book about Auschwitz. He writes that the prisoners were no longer alive but they weren’t dead either. Rather seemed to descend into a personal hell. … I wanted people to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they have never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling. The world is too full of information and here is a place without information.   


Eisenman’s memorial is a truly haptic experience as we walk in between the blocks there is no set path, we can zigzag, we can turn back on ourselves or we can attempt to walk in a straight line – whatever logic we try to bring to our route it is disturbed by the unevenness of the space. We become consciously aware of our bodies’ placement in space and begin to adapt to the confusing nature of the memorial by turning corners and back on ourselves sporadically creating a maze-like experience by the choices our body makes. In one moment we can see clearly over the top of a block, the next a block towers over us with a looming shadow. This is a space without logic and order. A space that provokes us to remember –through the body- that the Holocaust was a chaotic, nonsensical experience; one that we can never attempt to apply reason and rationale too and one we can certainly never recreate in museum spaces or memorial. But yet, memorials can embody a sense of remembrance – a sense of the space our bodies occupy in the present (in this chaotic memorial surrounded by the busy city streets of modern Berlin) and the striking difference between this present and the bodies of the past (those absent from the memorial – victims are not pictured – and also absent from our world).

Cognitive theorists in film studies, Carl Plantinga for example, tend to focus on narrative, characters and genre in order to understand how audiences emotionally engage with texts. But what about when there are no bodies? Or bodies are abstracted? Many museums and memorials follow historical narratives or represent victims through text (name and date of death) or photos. These re-presentations petrify the victims much like the popular Victorian book of the dead. They have an element of stillness about them – as if time has stopped. Affective Holocaust memorials recognise that time has not stopped, that society has progressed and thus we must remember in order for such atrocities to never happen again. They do this by taking their spectators / participants / visitors out of their comfortable surroundings and momentarily embodying them in the space in-between – the space between past and present. Phenomenologists believe it is from inbetween (spectator and text) that meaning emerges. I would argue that the text of affective Holocaust memorials is the past – the Holocaust – and the space created becomes a portal not into the past but into the inbetweenness.

denkel 3

denkel 4

Denkel 2

(Photos copyright Victoria Grace Walden, 2005, 2011, 2011 and 2005)


By Mona Sakr

In a study by Bianchi-Berthouze et al. (2007), game-playing through a whole-body interface was compared with control through the hands. When participants in the study controlled the game (Guitar Hero) through their whole bodies, they reported more engagement, as well as displaying increased engagement through game-related body movements that were unnecessary for control (e.g. nodding their heads in time to the music).

Why were users more engaged when control of the game involved their whole bodies? Bianchi-Berthouze et al. suggested that the relationship came about as a result of increased affect.

Body Affect Engagement

By involving the body, the affective dimension of the experience increased, and in turn, this impacted upon engagement. Shouse (2005, p. 5) defines affect as a ‘non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential’. Why does involving the body to a greater extent increase the affective response? And what are the implications of this relationship for the design of technologies and pedagogy?

Bianchi-Berthouze, N., Kim, W. W., & Patel, D. (2007) Does body movement engage you more in digital game play? And Why? Proceedings of the International Conference of Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction (102-113)