Interactionism and music

Here’s a brief write-up of the talk I gave on Tuesday at the ICMPC. I felt I didn’t manage to give the clearest of presentations, so perhaps this helps.🙂


Interactionism is a philosophical approach to social cognition that argues for the primacy of the social environment in understanding social cognition.

This is based on a lot of work that extends the mind-centric individualistic approach to cognition. In these extensions, the role of the body (embodied cognition), the environment (situational), and the social have been emphasised, suggesting the inclusion of these factors into studies in cognition, and importantly, into the models of cognition that are studied.

Many get their inspiration from a seminal 1991 book Embodied cognition by Varela, Thompson & Rosch. More recently, Hanne de Jaegher, Ezequiel di Paolo, with Thomas Fuchs and Shaun Gallagher, among others, have written extensively on the philosophical basis of interactionism, e.g. here, here and here.

There are two core ideas in interactionism (that I did not emphasise enough in the talk, as I used an old version of the slides with this slide missing).

The first one is participatory sense-making. This is akin to the idea of G.H. Mead and Herbert Blumer, symbolic interactionism according to which the meaning of “symbols” is created in interaction with them. This would apply to objects, but especially to social situations and roles, organisations etc.

Participatory sense-making means that meaning in the social situation is generated and continuously forms in the interaction, as a result of it. This is an “enactive” concept, emphasising the link between the mind and the world around it, in this case the social world.

Second, “social” can be seen to have different relationships with cognition. Nobody, not even the most staunch traditionalists would argue that the social environment is meaningless. But they might argue it only has a “contextual” role: the context has an effect on cognition, such that when the environment changes, the cognition changes. The two co-vary.

However, this still sees the environment (the social context) as a separate, outside cause. Interactionists would be more likely to give the environment an “enabling” role. Here, the cognition takes place because of the environment, so for example, a greeting or a verbal or musical interaction can take place only when this social environment is available; it enables the interaction.

Perhaps most importantly, the environment can be seen as having a constitutive role. This means that it is considered an integral part of the cognitive process itself. So not only has the environment have to be there, but it is a part of the cognitive process–thus any cognitive model has to include this.

The crucial question for us was, how to take these philosophical concepts to practice. In this talk, our plan was to talk about some ways in which they have been taken into practice.


I mentioned a couple of studies that are inspirational in that regard, and which can provide interesting ideas and methods for making this shift from static, individualistic measures to dynamic, interaction-based ones.

Leman et al. study illustrates how the role of the body in music cognition can be studied, Noy et al. demonstrates excellently how one can find out all kinds of interesting things when focusing on the characteristics of the outcome of joint action, the interaction dynamics themselves. Our finger-movement experiment (see video below) illustrates mutual adaptation, and the windowed cross-correlation plot of the African dance shows that even though a static measure shows that you have a zero-lag synchrony, running the analysis in a moving window and tracing how this relationship evolves over time, reveals that there is a continuous, mutual process going on, and leading and following oscillate around that zero-line average.

Finger movement examples from Tommi Himberg on Vimeo.


These are just a few examples. One of the points I was trying to make was that there are lots of studies out there that already practice what I’m preaching here, so it is not anything miraculous or new, but I was hoping it would help to have a name for this kind of an approach. And also, I wanted to encourage people to move to this direction, as I know that there are many more researchers who are interested in studying dyads and groups than there are those who actually get around doing it, and perhaps knowing about this literature might help them design studies that are feasible. Taking the interactionist approach can not be done at the analysis stage only; there are no specific statistical methods that turn a traditional cognitive study into an interactionist one. Rather, the change has to happen in planning the study and designing it: the focus should be set to the interaction, and the parameters of the interaction manipulated, and if possible, continuous measures should be used so that the evolution of the interaction can be traced.

I hope that’s a bit closer to practice than just saying we need to focus more on the social.🙂
De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory sense-making Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (4), 485-507 DOI: 10.1007/s11097-007-9076-9
De Jaegher, H., Di Paolo, E., & Gallagher, S. (2010). Can social interaction constitute social cognition? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14 (10), 441-447 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.06.009
Fuchs, T., & Jaegher, H. (2009). Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8 (4), 465-486 DOI: 10.1007/s11097-009-9136-4
Leman, M., Desmet, F., Styns, F., Van Noorden, L., & Moelants, D. (2009). Sharing Musical Expression Through Embodied Listening: A Case Study Based on Chinese Guqin Music Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26 (3), 263-278 DOI: 10.1525/MP.2009.26.3.263
Noy, L., Dekel, E., & Alon, U. (2011). The mirror game as a paradigm for studying the dynamics of two people improvising motion together Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (52), 20947-20952 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1108155108

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