Little thrill but almost a spill

October 27, 2006

FAIRGROUND: THRILL LABORATORY. Dana Centre, Science Museum, final night Wednesday, November 31, from 5.30pm, featuring the Booster and academic speakers, tickets £10

Here's the challenge. Have yourself hurtled through the air at breakneck speed on a fairground ride and talk sensibly about the thrill while you're doing it. Chances of success? Low, very low.

The Dana Centre's Fairground: Thrill Laboratory started its three-week stint last week. Punters are being offered the chance to explore all things thrill related, with eminent speakers discussing their connection to pleasure, frission and excitement. And at the event's heart are three rides installed in the centre's grounds: week-one involved the famed Miami Trip, this week is the Ghost Train and finally the G-force-defying Booster.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday night, before the punters are let loose, muggins here is the guinea-pig. Kitted out in a contraption designed to wirelessly transmit and display my heart rate, face and voice to the audience, I've foolishly taken on the challenge of talking sensibly about the thrill induced on each ride, in real-time. There's a pretty obvious hurdle to be overcome in taking on such a challenge, it is the talking sensibly bit.

Sadly, my opening performance on the Miami Trip was abysmal. The thing was it was just not thrilling - my attention was focused on keeping down the assorted canapes I'd frivolously tucked into earlier as I was thrown around. Consoling myself, however, I'd like to imagine my poor performance was due to a more profound problem - what it actually means to be thrilled.

To unpack this a little, let me set up a simple caricature of a white-coated psychologist. Thrill, as he or she would have it, is something that exists in the mind, waiting patiently to be retrieved. Expose an unwitting subject to the right stimuli - pictures, noises or prods - and one can evoke thrill as the emotional response. Take this idea to its logical conclusion and we can imagine that fairground rides installed in science museums can easily reproduce the experience. But that is utter nonsense. The sorts of thrill one experiences on fairground rides depend on being in the right environment, with friends, crowds, noises, smells and so on. In short, feeling thrilled is about the complexity of the contexts in which we find ourselves.

Of course, this sounds like the tired argument of reductionism versus holism. In one camp is our psychologist who believes human experience can be neatly apportioned into testable stimulus-response pairs. In the other, the woolly social science and humanities scholars purport experience to be multifaceted, complex, irreducible: dismantle it and the phenomenon - the thrill - is lost.

This two-camp distinction is an artifice of intellectual ramblings. So to give us perhaps something more worthwhile to ponder, let me make an admission. I did, in fact, find thrill at the Science Museum. But it was only when I snuck onto The Miami Trip with friends later in the evening. So the same ride in the same place but this time thrill reveals itself! Others' laughs, yelps and screams inexplicably transform what a moment earlier had me wondering what vigorously shaken canapes might look like.

Might we then imagine thrill as produced through our unfolding relations with one another? Is thrill not in the head but mutually constituted in the moment? Thrill as a social accomplishment. Perhaps this week's Ghost Train will enlighten me.

Alex Taylor is a social scientist at Microsoft Research's Cambridge Laboratory.

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