Faculty Perspectives: David Bell

David BellDavid Bell, PhD, Professor of Romance Studies, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Bass Connections Project Team: Movement, Grace and Embodied Cognition

Professor Bell and Professor Leonard White are leading a project team exploring graceful movements in terms of body mechanics, social cognition and the cultural and aesthetic meanings of grace. Team members are exploring performance contexts that require an exploration of the limits of movement and acceleration—such as dance, a formal social event or an athletic contest—in order to ask fascinating broader questions: What is graceful movement? And what is grace?

We asked him a few questions about his Bass Connections experience; below are excerpts from our conversation.

Tact, touch and the making of a team

What happened was serendipity. During the Neurohumanities in Paris summer program, I met and had the occasion to talk a lot with Len White, one of the neuroscientists who anchored that program.

DancersI had a project on tact at the time, in a broadly cultural sense, starting with courtly manuals—in other words, how to move and present one’s body in ways that are effective in public situations, how to dominate without seeming to dominate, how to appear both natural and completely in control.

I was sitting in on the course that Len was teaching in the Neurohumanities program. Touch is a really interesting and complex neuroscience question, of course. And we both thought it particularly interesting to consider tact (or touch) in the whole range of its meanings—from the cultural to the physiology.

We started talking, and I began to be really interested in how the cultural phenomena I was exploring were linked to neurological systems. Deborah Jenson encouraged us to do a Bass Connections project.

Measuring movement, sharing results

Team members with a dancerWe became interested in formal movement in our first year, and we gravitated toward dance. One of the professors in our group, Rosalinda Canizares, is in physical therapy at Duke and is the physical therapist for the American Dance Festival. She connected us with a troupe and we did some work with them to produce accelerometer measurements.

The dancers were very interested in what we were trying to do, so we put together some results they could look at. This became a web presentation, and we’re hoping eventually to produce a publication in a dance journal.

New directions

The Bass Connections experience has been personally very transforming intellectually, in ways that are difficult to measure at this point but are percolating all the time.

It’s partially changed my research and writing focus. I have a piece coming out on touch and closeness in a collection to be published by the University of Chicago Press, which I never would have written if I hadn’t had this experience. And I’m working on a piece on spatial memory, which is a new area of reflection for me, directly linked to my ongoing interests in neuroscience.

Rich interdisciplinary collaboration

It’s really fascinating to work with people who are not in your research area. They bring perspectives on questions you simply wouldn’t have if you didn’t have the chance to work with them.

There were two physical therapists on our team last year. One of them, Rob Butler, has a very data-driven perspective, which really brought into focus questions that otherwise were too vague. For a faculty member, that’s really what’s rich about Bass Connections. I knew something about neuroscience from what I’d read to inform myself generally, but I certainly had no clear idea about how physical therapists conceptualize their work. Learning more about how research questions are formulated in those two fields was part of an awakening experience for me.

See other faculty perspectives and learn how you can get involved in Bass Connections