Expert ballet dancers are skilled performing artists with strong non-verbal communication competencies.
In addition, they are efficient learners of complex three-dimensional sequences, who master cognitively-challenging novel tasks under time constraints and with high expectations of quality performance.
Symbolic practice of these demanding tasks through “marking” can improve performance and reduce the mental strain of learning, mastering, and performing at an expert level, and may be applicable to enhancing other types of performance.
Former professional ballet dancer Edward Warburton of University of California, Santa Cruz collaborated with UCSC colleague Margaret Wilson and their counterparts at University of California, Irvine, Molly Lynch and Shannon Cuykendall to investigate the impact of dancers performing an abbreviated version of choreography during rehearsal by “marking” to conserve energy and to aid recall of complex routines.
One example is marking using a finger rotation to represent a turn.
Warburton and team compared the quality of performances by dancers who rehearsed by “marking” and by performing the full choreography.
Guided by the “embodied cognitive-load hypothesis,” they reasoned that if marking provided only reduced physical effort, then there should be no difference in the quality of performance between marking and full-effort rehearsals.
In contrast, they found that the performances rehearsed by “marking” were superior, suggesting that marking’s symbolic practice provides cognitive as well as physical benefits.
Marking reduced the cognitive load during rehearsal to allow more effective memory encoding.
David Kirsh, University of California San Diego further investigated the assertion that “dance is embodied thought” and that the body is an instrument of cognition by collecting video and interview data as University of Cambridge research fellow Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance company developed a new choreographic sequence.
Kirsh reported that marking was more effective than mental simulation without symbolic movement in enhancing performance.
He noted that marking is “physical thinking,” a simplified representational vehicle for thought, and a form of thinking because it is a:
- Gestural language for encoding aspects of a target movement
- Way to prime neural systems involved in the target movement
- Method to increase precision in mentally projecting aspects of the target movement.
External representations like marking, diagrams, illustrations, instructions reinforce memory through other sensory channels like vision or audition, providing “scaffolding” to enhance recall.
These varied symbolic representations also enhance cognitive power because they:
- Reduce the “costs” of making inferences and thoughts
- Are a shared thought “object”
- Create lasting referents
- Facilitate repeat representation at other times and places
- May be more intuitive than cognitive representations
- Enable information encoding and “projection” to form complex thought structures
Warburton and team suspect that other symbolic rehearsal techniques like whispering, gesturing, and sub-vocalizing could provide similar performance improvements in other areas such as language learning, and are currently investigating these applications.
-*How effective have you found symbolic representations in reducing “cognitive load” and improving performance?
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