Lasting changes of perspectives, known as cognitive shifts, are rare and valuable events presenting those who experience them with new perceptive capabilities. Through certain physical movements involving elevation, orientation or route changes, minds can be dramatically reorganized around new performed understandings.

Photos and diagrams from my fieldwork in Budapest

While getting my master’s degree I did my fieldwork in Budapest on parkour. Through practice and participant observation I gained what I like to call parkour vision and experienced a cognitive shift that has stuck with me. Years after that research, urban landscapes remain changed for me; I gained a spatial awareness that is now part of how I see. I often give staircases sideways glances, evaluating the strength of its railing for possible footholds and adjacencies that could spell a change of route. How might a vault lead to a next move and so on. Parkour gave me a new bodily understanding of the city and led me to a more intimate knowledge of architectural standards and design intentions. Since my fieldwork I have been absorbed in questions of how spatial location and performance can foster cognitive shifts in the way we perceive and utilize our environment.  

Parkour Vision

We may easily transcend space through real-time communications and networks on some levels, real cognitive shifts however are thoroughly entwined with physical experiences. I am referring to a phenomenon that isn’t yet downloadable and isn’t easily transmissible. The practitioners of parkour share a common route to new perspectives. The cognitive shifts they experience, although well documented and described, require bodily participation with all implied hazards and hurtles.

Parkour is practiced by navigating and engaging the built environment in ways that are often perpendicular to the intentions of planners. For the practitioner, the traceur, walking down the street or setting out to train, it takes only a momentary switch of perspective to reveal new potentials in architecture. These are the occasions for what I call urban dialogues in parkour, where physical obstacles are negotiated to become springboards of new freedoms. Such cognitive reorientation between the self and the built environment, also known as “parkour vision,” develops through the practice of parkour and changes the way urban spaces are interpreted, utilized and experienced. 

Some of the effects of the shift of perception occurs not only for the traceur, but for the society as a whole, challenging our concepts of the uses of urban space. Through parkour the urban map is being redrawn, barriers reinvented, ideas of propriety re-evaluated and lifestyles recast in the image of newfound spatial and embodied liberties. The effects are rippling through urban studies, design and everyday life with projects leveraging the traceur’s interpretative re-sampling of prescriptive built forms.

Still from My Playground (2010) Bjarke Ingles and Team Jiyo

Can we ever get there without going there? 

Can the bodily understandings achieved through performed cognitive shifts ever be simulated? Does the rarity of experience, in itself, increase the potency of it? Writing, cinematography and even virtual reality all seem inadequate mediums for the transmission of the cognitive shifts like parkour, or the Overview Effect. How might we design interactions that would allow users to experience cognitive shifts? Could the Overview Effect be reenacted through a kind of high fidelity virtual reality environment? How might the freeing change in perspective brought about by parkour vision be experienced through an interaction that does not require physical risk and agility? 

Cognitive shifts, explored in my research as bodily understandings seem important exactly because they force us to relate to our environments in new ways. With potential implications for wayfinding, urban planning and architecture, the type of spatial cognitive shift that comes out of parkour could give us a new window into user behavior and a new interpretation of what is “usable” and accessible in the built environment. These understandings are known only spatially and bodily, they must be performed and experienced. For now, it remains that when exploring the limits of the human scale, if we can go there with our bodies then we have a chance of going there with our minds.

My thesis related to all of this can be downloaded in full here.