Transmission in Motion


“Things That Move Us”- Tamalone van Eijnden

During the last session of Transmission in Motion Emilia Barakova and Roos van Berkel gave a workshop on “Expressive Movement as a Universal Language between Humans and Social Robots.” But actually, it was more than the two of them, since they also brought Pleo with them, an animatronic pet dinosaur, which has been used in therapy for people with dementia, who suffer from emotional disorders such as depression, to successfully increase their motivation to play and engage in social interaction. Also during our workshop, it was impressive to observe how Pleo magnetically drew all our attention, (even though what was being said was extremely interesting). Pleo had an endearing design with the allure of a puppy due to its round forms. However, what made Pleo so intriguing was its ability to move around autonomously and emit several sounds upon touch, which the audience collectively interpreted as “oh, it’s anxious, oh it’s content.”

How can it be, that this toy had such a spell on us?


Fiona Apple sings “I thought it was a bird but it was just a paper bag.”[1] If inanimate entities move, it oftentimes seems to be that we are inclined to connect them with lifeforms and gestures of the animate world. The experiment “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior,” conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel is a great example of this. What they found is that people, who would see an animated video of two triangles and a ball moving around a square, were inclined to imbue these objects with meaning, animate them, see them as human characters of a story. This can be directly applied to how I viewed Pleo. Involuntarily, I associated the unhappy noises immediately with Pleo being overwhelmed and confused by the setting of the workshop and the presence of so many people.[2]

To better understand this empathic understanding towards Pleo, the neurobiological phenomenon of mirror neurons as described by Zahavi might provide some insight. According to him, these neurons are responsible for some “low-level form of empathy,” which he described as a “mechanism of inner imitation.”[3] He found that perceiving others as “intentional agents” is to be attributed rather to the existence of mirror neurons than to “linguistic and mentalistic abilities.”[4] A crucial aspect of mirror neurons is that they do not rely exclusively on visual perception, but “rather, the motor schema of the observer has to be involved.”[5]  The observer’s own knowledge about movement will enable them to “translate the observed movement.”[6] Thus, a link between observer and observed emerges from the shared capacity to move and becomes the basis for empathy. And since movement is such an inclusive category, it can be considered a universal language (as suggested by the title of this session), which transpasses human-machine divides. Therefore, Pleo’s capacity to move can be seen as a key factor in raising our empathy.


  • [1] Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag.” YouTube, published October 2, 2009, accessed April 19, 2018,
  • [2] Needless to say that I always knew that Pleo doesn’t feel happy or unhappy.
  • [3]  Zahavi, Dan. “Empathy and Social Cognition.” Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.154.
  • [4] Zahavi, “Empathy and Social Cognition,” 154.
  • [5] Zahavi, “Empathy and Social Cognition,” 154.
  • [6] Zahavi, “Empathy and Social Cognition,”155.