How to embrace fear

January 07, 2010

Good news for thrill-seekers. Scientists are adapting rollercoaster technology to bring us the ultimate ride

For seven mesmerising tenths of a second, the summit of the Eejanaika rollercoaster affords an unrivalled vista of the northeastern face of Mount Fuji — snow-capped, majestic…and upside-down. Then the screaming starts.

I am riding in the foremost “seat” (a sort of free-wheeling iron maiden) of the coaster, but the shrieks come from all quarters: from behind, from the side and, after we perform a second demented somersault, from in front.

My synapses crackle with the ransacked logic of inversion, but soon abandon the job to work on a more pressing problem. Most of my nerves have made an emergency return to jungle principles and seem fairly convinced their owner is about to die. That, I suspect, is the point.

The orderly Japanese screaming subsides, leaving one primal roar spiralling hopelessly in the crisp mountain air. It turns out to be mine and I am secretly impressed that my Neanderthal is so fluent.

We are now 3.4 seconds “post-drop” on Asia’s most terrifying rollercoaster and my distressed brain attempts to establish some order. Oddly, it does this by cutting to a recollection of Bill Withers performing circa 1977. In the song Lovely Day, the mellifluous crooner holds the word “day” for 18 magical seconds in what remains a record for a pop song. I beat him comfortably with 20 seconds of sustained guttural howling from deep within my DNA.

The unique feature of Eejanaika — and the reason it holds a Guinness World Record — is the number of times it flips its paying guests over and the dimensions in which it does so. During the ride’s merciless 42 seconds from the initial drop, passengers are spun through 360 degrees a total of 14 times. Forwards, backwards and in a series of plummeting or soaring corkscrews (it was hard to tell), the revolutions are exquisitely designed to corrupt rational thought.

Fear rushes into the seat that sanity has vacated. It would be weird if it didn’t, and that is exactly what is being exploited. As an experience, the rollercoaster is behaving like the very best computer hackers — using our fundamental programming against us and bending it to unimaginable evil. If, mid-plummet, Eejanaika had asked me to surrender my credit card PIN, I probably would have agreed.

On a traditional rollercoaster, where passengers can see the track ahead, the mind is free to perform its normal functions. However fast the carriage may be moving, and however sudden the drops and curves, the brain is making functional judgments about what lies ahead. Its conclusion may be enjoyment, panic or boredom, but at least some sort of process has taken place.

Eejanaika never gives you that option. The eyes, the middle ear, one’s innate sense of gravity: none of them are conveying any practical information about what might happen next. You are left with a series of subliminal images, each one implying you’re a goner.

The machine screeches to a halt and the riders dismount — visibly weighing the question of whether “exhilarating” is anything like the same thing as “fun”. In the summer at the height of the season, they might also be wondering whether it was worth the three-hour queue. Some wobble, some giggle uncontrollably. I fight the urge to run through the Fuji-Q theme park like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. The Japanese teen in the adjacent seat offers me a trembling hand to shake: “Oh my God!” he says in faltering English. There are no atheists on a really good rollercoaster, it seems. Before the ride, I took a reading from a portable heart monitor, and it recorded a relaxed, regular beat. Immediately afterwards — half a minute after the apex of my terror — the machine kept saying “Error: please seek medical advice”. But the effects were remarkably short-lived, leaving me wondering just how much adrenalin had really been produced. Within four minutes, my heart rate was back to normal.

Since the first genesis of the rollercoaster humans have loved the feeling of being blasted into the air, dropped down and spun helplessly in a scenario over which they appear to have no control. The ice slides of 16th century Russia have become the corkscrews and pneumatic propulsion systems of today, but, although the technology may now be equal to supporting astronauts in outer space, the sensation and urge behind it remains unchanged.

The technicians behind the rollercoasters have an increasingly sophisticated take on what makes us scared — and how to induce us to part with hard cash to feel the thrill. The new holy grail in rollercoaster technology is an entertainment experience that can measure the physiological and psychological responses of participants — and transport them on a ride to the ultimate tailored thrill.

Brendan Walker has a peerless reputation in this arena where art, science and entertainment meet. Formerly an aeronautical engineer at British Aerospace, Walker now describes himself as the world’s only “thrill engineer”.

When he was a little boy Walker, now 38, used to dress up as a red devil and run up into the hills of the Peak District to watch planes fly overhead. Later, as a young man and aerospace engineer, he designed planes himself, but quit when he found that those that crashed and burnt were more interesting than those that stayed in the air. He now works with geneticists, academics and rollercoaster technicians, and runs a production consultancy specialising in “the creation of tailored emotional experience”.

“I was looking to find relationships between extreme emotional experience and the social, cultural and psychological conditions that are necessary to create these kind of sensations,” Walker says, wearing his trademark red “Thrill Laboratory” boiler suit.

Starting with smaller experiments on existing theme park rides, Walker wired up subjects to monitor their heart rate, sweat production and facial muscle reactions — all designed to gauge fear and pleasure. That data provided the basis for his first adaptive simulation: a single-rider bucking bronco from which measurements are taken and then used to adjust the ride to increase fear and arousal.

Walker works with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham in conducting his bucking bronco experiments. According to Steve Benford, Professor of Collaborative Computing at the university: “We wanted to find out if you could have a meaningful relationship between what your body gives off and what you’re experiencing. If so, can you adapt a ride accordingly, and, even if you do, will anyone notice the difference?”

Since Disney built the first steel-based rollercoaster, the Matterhorn in 1959, the basic ingredients of design have remained the same: acceleration, g-force, inversions, loops, free falls and speed. But technology has made them higher and faster. The US leads the thrill pack, followed by Japan and Germany. American Premier Rides invented linear indication systems, Swiss company Intamin created the hydraulic launch and the German Gerstlauer is responsible for inverted drops of more than 90 degrees.

As a result, rides in a pure “thrill park” might now be able to shoot visitors up to 120m (400ft), as the Kingda Ka ride in Six Flags New Jersey does, drop them at an angle of 97 degrees as at Rage at Adventure Island in Essex, and then spin them like a washing machine. But Walker, and bigger players in the industry, believe the ultimate ride involves engineering a more complicated emotional journey.

The development of rides such as Saw at Thorpe Park in Surrey involve a complex back story, music tracks and a long pre-ride sequence that builds expectation before the rider even sets foot in the car.

In an age saturated with sensation, only novelty and increased intensity provide satisfaction. Even the grandaddy of the theme park industry, Disney, admits that constant innovation is vital to pleasing audiences who have seen it all before. “We are not a thrill park. We don’t have rides, we have attractions,” says David Wilson, a former Nasa technician and nuclear engineer who is now employed as a project manager for Walt Disney Imagineering, based in Paris. “We can create cool technology, but at the heart of what we’re doing is the story we want to tell.”

Recognising the need for a free fall attraction, Wilson helped to create the Tower of Terror at Disneyland Paris. But, being Disney, the ride could not be merely a tower with a drop. The Tower of Terror is themed around an old Hollywood hotel that uses a lift to propel riders to different floors, before the doors open to reveal various horror film scenarios and then free fall drops to different levels. The ride can accelerate both up and down from 0-30 mph in 1.6 seconds, and generates enough power to run 1,864 Smart cars. But the key to the ride’s success, according to Wilson, is that the drops can happen three or four times in unpredictable combinations. “Thrill and delight is absolutely generated by the unexpected. We have another attraction where you can feel the sensation of a rat running across your feet. There are no loops or negative gs, but it works every time.”

Novelty, intensity, complexity and variety form the four elements in what psychologists measure as sensation-seeking experiences. Physical thrill is only one facet of these, and high-scoring sensation seekers often also score highly in other areas; looking for more sex, drink, drugs and extreme sports. High sensation seekers who love the thrill of a ride are also impulsive when it comes to changing jobs and partners, and frequently underestimate how risky their activities are. A thrilling ride will incite the same fear and arousal as other illicit activities, such as shoplifting.

Marvin Zuckerman, of the University of Delaware, has studied sensation seeking for 30 years and claims that the thrill quickly wears off. “Activities need to escalate to become more risky, or more unusual,” he says. “Skydivers become base jumpers, movies become more explicit.” Not surprisingly, high sensation-seekers love theme parks and horror movies, while “low sensation-seekers don’t go on rollercoasters”. High sensation-seekers also tend to be young and male, an association that scientists believe is linked to testosterone and levels of dopamine associated with D4DR, the “thrill gene”.

A long-form mutation of the D4DR gene has been linked with lower levels of dopamine in the brain, and the need for high sensation-seekers to pursue more risky and exciting activities as compensation, according to consultant immunologist Dr Hilary Longhurst, from Barts and the London NHS Trust. Longhurst recently tested Brendan Walker for the gene mutation, and is waiting for the result.

“I honestly don’t know if I have the thrill gene,” Walker says. His interest lies in vicarious response rather than personal thrill. “I go on planes and read out accounts of air disasters to see how people react. My girlfriend hates it when I do that.” His current work encompasses the psychological and physical aspects of sensation-seeking. “There’s the idea of spectacle, a very visual idea. Then there are bodily sensations of speed, sound, taste. And then there is power and control. Finally there’s mortality. Will you be in mortal danger, or will you stay alive?”

Walker recently undertook a “thrill road-trip” across the US and had a brush with death when a parachute failed to open during a sky dive; an experience that seems to have left him shaken, rather than exhilarated. His travels left him wanting to map out the inherently emotional elements that make up a thrilling experience. Could they be quantified? “In the old days fairground workers knew how to work with all those elements,” Walker says. “They could read from people’s expressions how afraid they were, and they’d make the ride go higher, or faster — or come and spin your car if you were on the waltzer. What we want to do is measure those responses in a quantifiable way and program the rides themselves.”

Working with the British ride company RoboCoaster, Walker is beginning to construct, at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a larger prototype of an adaptive ride that can be programmed and changed to suit different responses. RoboCoaster rides, which are based on industrial robots, come in two or four-seat variations. Their smaller size makes them most adaptable to an individual experience. Walker predicts that larger rides could group together similar-scoring sensation-seekers for a pre-programmed experience suited to their needs.

At the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham the thrill team have assembled to demonstrate how Walker’s physiological and physical experiment works on the bucking bronco. Blair Barnett, their volunteer, is a blonde, pigtailed Californian rodeo rider. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, her hands, chest and face are wired to a monitor while a camera mounted on a helmet records her facial expressions and the muscle twitches around her eyes and mouth.

In the heat of the studio, the shiny red bullet-shaped bronco is slippery. Walker quickly adapts a rubber bath mat for Blair to sit on so she doesn’t slide off too soon. With another thrill technician at the controls the bronco gyrates; Blair grimaces, smiles, and her heart rate blips. In addition to rodeo riding, Blair is an actress who says she “dislikes happy endings”, which is fortunate as she spins off on to the floor. Paul, the technician who has been controlling the ride, reviews the data and reveals that Blair gets most pleasure from a slowly rocking bronco, and is frightened when he spins it around in fast, jerky motions.

The optimum ride that causes the monitors to register pleasure and fear in equal amounts is the one that incorporates fast, random motion. “Is it acceleration? Is it anticipation?” asks Steve Benford, who has been watching. “More importantly, can we sustain it multiple times?”

“It’s the thrill isn’t it,” said one teenage boy about to ride on Saw at Thorpe Park, “It’s a feeling in your stomach, you can’t get that feeling anywhere else.” Of course, you can — but nowhere so safely. “It’s a euphoric sensation,” says Brendan Walker, “a zooming emotion that blocks out everything else. You know the moment people enjoy the most? It’s in the queue before they even get on. And sometimes they hate it while they’re on it, but what an afterglow.”

Brendan Walker’s work is highlighted by the campaign Science: So What? So Everything, which aims to show people the science behind their everyday lives. Visit www.direct.gov.uk/sciencesowhat

Comments (1)

Posted by: shannon kirwin over 6 years ago

it is good i will go on it a gane

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