This summer I had the pleasure of working closely with folk-rock musician and artist Keaton Henson as he developed a new composition that explored his personal relationship with anxiety. Together we created interactive stage lighting, which we designed to reveal and amplify an audience’s varying states of anxiety elicited by the six different movements of his composition. Keaton’s orchestral composition was performed by Britten Sinfonia, and I performed the accompanying live experiment to capture the audience’s physiological responses, which I used to control our stage lighting in real-time. Six Lethargies premiered at The Barbican on 20th July 2018, and was previewed by New Scientist, The Guardian, and critically reviewed by Loud and Quiet. I wrote the following essay for Keaton’s companion publication of image, poetry and word.
“16 years ago I came to the simple conclusion: I love to thrill an audience. Since that moment of realisation I’ve been pursuing ways to understand thrill in all its forms, and how it might be elicited. This has gained me some notoriety as “the world’s first thrill engineer”.
“I originally thought that thrill was an emotional state. Following methodology of ethno-criminologists I started to interview people about the ways they craft and choose to enjoy their own weird and wonderful thrilling experiences. Something curious emerged. Whether I was speaking to a roller coaster fanatic or a secret cross dresser, most reported a massive and large increase in valence and arousal, immediately preceding the sensation of thrill (the sensation of thrill is characterised by zooming emotions and a sense of euphoria, followed by a delicious afterglow as adrenaline and dopamine course through the veins).
“Valence is what scientists call ‘the hedonistic tone’, or put more simply: pleasure. Arousal describes the body being pumped up and ready for action. One theory says that all emotions can be put somewhere on a graph of valence and arousal. However, I discovered that thrill isn’t a static emotion, but occurs when there’s a dynamic change between two emotional states; when there’s a rapid, large and positive change in valence and arousal.
“As an artist and designer, this discovery was all I needed to inspire and inform my creative practice. But as a former aeronautical engineer and technologist I wanted to explore this concept further. If I could find techniques to monitor and quantify the elements of valence and arousal in real-time, then perhaps I could quantify thrill itself (a line of inquiry which led to an equation called “The Walker Thrill Factor”).
“The last 10 years has been a fascinating scientific journey in the pursuit of this inquiry, which has seen me working with many areas of human physiology, psychology, medical science, and sensor technology. I’ve worked with scientists developing computer algorithms to determine emotional state through the real-time analysis of facial muscles. I’ve had my own DNA sequenced searching for the thrill-seeking gene D4DR, which is just one factor that can help to explain differences in thrill seeking tendencies. And I used neurological monitoring to create Neurosis: the world’s first brain controlled thrill ride. My work is fun, and I often get invited to talk about the future of entertainment. But there is a darker flipside to thrill, which people often don’t like to discuss.
“Thrill rewards the persistence of life, for example surviving danger (be it bodily or spiritual), sating hunger, or quenching thirst. The thrill of all these can be accentuated by a deepening of the crisis from which the person is hopefully saved. Knowing my fascination, it may be no surprise to learn that subjects of TV shows I’ve presented over the last few years have covered topics of air disasters, sinking ships, and the catastrophic collapse of bridges. Critically, they have all involved interviews with people who’ve either been part of, or have witnessed these human-technological disasters. I’m interested in the deep sense of anxiety, and excitement, than can be elicited related to such events.
“So, to engineer thrill effectively, you don’t just need to know how to create moments of excitement and pleasure, you also need to understand how to create those darker places from which you may ultimately wish to save your audience (if you’re able). Hitchcock was a master.
“Keaton and I have talked in-depth about the nature, and dynamics of his own state anxiety. It excited me to hear Keaton talk about the ‘delicious feeling’ he gets immediately following the abatement of anxiety, even when anxiety is replaced by depression. We talk the same language phenomenologically, scientifically, and creatively, albeit from different perspectives.
“So what are Keaton and I planning to do together? Our plan is driven by many creative, and scientific, questions. Can Keaton elicit a state of anxiety in an audience through musical composition and performance; can I monitor this state of anxiety; and can I help to amplify this state of anxiety through accompanying stage lighting, which is driven by real-time medical data?
“I won’t go into the creative development that has gone into making this aspect of the performance – you can experience the work for yourselves. But I would like to conclude by saying something about the medical monitoring technique I’m employing – electrodermal activity (EDA).
“Anxiety is a complex psychological and emotional state, however, it does have many physiological traits similar to fear, in particular the associated levels of elevated arousal. When a body is aroused, the autonomic nervous system becomes activated; the heart beats faster, pupils dilate, breathing quickens, and tiny pores of the sweat gland open, preparing to sweat. If you pass a small electrical current between the surfaces of two adjacent fingers, you can monitor and observe the electrical resistance decrease as these pores open up. This is the electrodermal activity.
“In 1888, French neurologist Charles Féré was the first to note that skin resistance could be changed by emotional stimulation. Since then, it has been shown in controlled laboratory studies, that out of all physiological responses, EDA will most closely reflect a subject’s state of anxiety. And 130 years later, in the 21st century, I’m able to take this biomedical data, process it in real-time, and use it as a creative medium. Keaton and I hope that you enjoy our first exploration together, which I hope is the first of many.”