Actions speak louder than words

Emily Spencer-Parris watches virtual interdisciplinary dance performance, Feedback Loops.

Before 2020, I never imagined I’d attend Malta’s Science in the City festival from the comfort of my own bedroom. The festival was held virtually, on Zoom, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The festival theme, ‘Engage, Empower, Enable’ never felt so apt for this year and after watching the performance, ‘Feedback Loops’ I truly felt empowered and engaged.

This interdisciplinary performance, combining the worlds of science and art, was danced by Anna Spink, and was based on the research study RADAR-CNS that is jointly led by King’s College London and Janssen Pharmaceutica NV. The study investigates how wearable medical devices (think Fitbit!) can track symptoms and help prevent depression, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. For instance, the device may enable an individual to notice if they are slipping back into depressive tendencies, or for someone with epilepsy, the device may warn them that they are about to experience seizures. The aim is for the device to break the loop! This is all done through tracking the person’s biological data, such as heart rate and sweat rate.

How is all this shown through a dance performance? The producer and leader of ‘Feedback Loops’ is Alina Ivan, whose creative vision enabled the worlds of science, psychology, dance and music to come together to present this breath-taking performance. Anna wore the medical device used in this study, while dancing in a contemporary style. Although it appeared like Anna was dancing to the music (as you would expect), this was not the case. Anna was actually generating the music through her biological data; creating the pitch, speed and texture through the movement of her own body, which highlights how the device effortlessly obtains information from the individual who is wearing it. Furthermore, the fast-paced music and sharp dance movements allowed Anna to create her own world, in terms of expressed movement and also the musical sounds these created, making this a unique and powerful experience for the audience.

For an individual who is experiencing conditions such as depression, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, it can be hard to explain and communicate with others how these experiences can make you feel. Indeed, as Alina says perfectly “the conditions can be invisible and misunderstood”. As a psychology student and a dancer, I have always had an understanding of how the mind and body are connected and how we can express our emotions and feelings through dance. I feel that ‘Feedback Loops’ portrayed this beautifully by interpreting depression, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis through dance movements. It enabled communication through movements, rather than words, and this form of communication can be understood universally, no matter what language you speak.

What was particularly poignant for me was the active involvement of the research participants, with Anna tapping into their experiences to help choreograph her dance performance. Quotes from participants were also presented on screen, for example, one read: “due to high stress and exhaustion my body shut down”, alongside this quote Anna was moving on the floor with heavy movements creating a push and pull effect; this represented the individual fighting against themselves and their depression, showing the minimal effort that they had due to exhaustion.

The medical device used in this study could have some clinical and practical implications in the world of psychology. While the device is very expensive, it is currently used in some hospitals to track epilepsy. This medical device could also be used outside of hospital settings to help individuals break the loop and spot the signs before their condition worsens.

I feel ‘Feedback Loops’ blended the bridge between science and art, and this especially works seamlessly between psychology and dance. Dance is more than just movements, it is about creating character through body movements, stillness, gestures and facial expressions, which in turn creates feelings and emotions. I hope that the involvement of art and science can shape future projects.

Reviewed by Emily Spencer-Parris; MSc Applied Clinical Psychology student, University of Central Lancashire. T: @esp_psych

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