Connecting the body and the brain: Belser researches awareness through movement

When Andrew Belser, director of Penn State's Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI) and professor in the School of Theatre, began studying body mindfulness, he quickly realized its implications on his research and on the ways in which consciousness affects how individuals interact in and with the rest of the world.

“Where does our body actually stop?” asked Belser. “When an actor is in costume or onstage, he or she interacts differently with space. The brain becomes immediately aware of the dimensions of a hat on a head and that the person is onstage in front of an audience.”

As director of the ADRI, Belser considers himself a researcher and leader among peers, rather than an administrator. The ADRI space, 16 Borland, is similarly not set up as a segmented office suite, but as an open room with a performance/lecture space in the middle and desks lining the walls. When not teaching class, Belser is at his desk along the wall, conducting his own research among the nine faculty members chosen as ADRI Embedded Researchers.

“Penn State’s strategic plan lists ‘advancing the arts and humanities’ as one of its five priorities, and that is our goal,” explained Belser. “The ADRI is a collaborative and interdisciplinary space, and it is just as important to me to have people from outside come in as it is to have people within see what we are doing.”

Not only does Belser express his interest in art as well as science, but his projects also tend to lie somewhere in between both disciplines. For example, FaceAge, a multi-media installation created from guided cross-generational encounters documented through digital recordings, is a collaboration between the ADRI, the Center for Healthy Aging in the College of Human Health and Human Development, and the College of Nursing.

“My projects don’t feel particularly different to me. They all ask the same questions: ‘How do we act?’ ‘What are the roots of action in life?’ ‘How do we know ourselves through our bodies?’” said Belser, who is currently working on a book project, "The Performer’s Field Guide to Applied Neuroscience."

Belser wants to create a source for actors and teachers to use for building bridges between theatre and neuroscience. His work with the Feldenkrais method and the research he has conducted through studio visits and interviews with leading directors and acting teachers have helped him understand the value of awareness through movement in actor training.

“I want this to be a dog-eared book, written for people to take into the studio with them. The chapters are short and guided by practice. I address issues that actors face — fear, tension, memorization and perception,” noted Belser.

His most recent project, in partnership with the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State and the Feldenkrais Institute in New York, has involved addressing an underserved aging population with mild cognitive impairment. By teaching participants to practice awareness through movement, the goal of the study is to enhance their mental and physical capabilities.

“As the body begins to decline, some people start to close down their lives by narrowing social circles, limiting outings, and overall taking fewer risks,” Belser elaborated. “Learning how to stay in one’s body can enhance one’s memory and lead to a longer and richer life.”

Through teaching Feldenkrais workshops in the ADRI and theatre graduate student movement classes, Belser has discovered different levels of meaning and value related to body mindfulness. In collaboration with Joe Julian, ADRI lead investigator in applied neuroscience, he has made connections between theory and practice that bring individuals back to the earliest form of memory — kinesthetic — in order to address the ways in which bodies carry history and culture in their movements and kinesthetic memories. Both Belser and Julian are preparing to participate in a symposium about embodied cognition.

The ADRI will host the symposium, “Embodied Cognition and Communities of Practice,” 3:30–5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22, in 16 Borland. Panelists will discuss how embodied cognition can transform fundamental thinking and practices in different disciplines. The symposium will also address questions about the relationship between embodied cognition and technology.

“We are carriers of learning, culture, and even motor memory,” emphasized Belser. “Our bodies are completely different from each others’ based on everything from gender to form to experience. That sounds obvious and simple, but we need to address what that means for different areas of study — design, medicine, science, anthropology, sociology, and of course the arts. It’s about making connections between our bodies and our brains as well as between our work and lived experiences.” 

ADRI provides support for high-impact arts and design research projects. Unless otherwise noted, all events take place at the Arts & Design Research Incubator, 16 Borland.

All events are free and open to the public, but some do require registration, as space is limited. For more information, visit the ADRI website: http://adri.psu.edu.

Connect with ADRI at www.facebook.com/PennStateADRI.