Dizzy Heights: The Exhilaration & Anxiety of Thrill
‘Undaunted by dizzy heights and brisk winds that sway their “bos’n’s chairs” far about busy streets or humming industries, steeple jacks ply their precarious callings dangling atop tower and chimney stack with apparent ease.’ ‘Hazards of Dizzy by Aerial’ in Popular Mechanics 41, no. 6 (June 1924)
‘The very same medium which had helped to catapult Michael [Jackson]’s career to the dizzy heights of mega stardom the likes of which are unlikely ever again to be equaled - was now plotting his downfall.’ Adrian Grant, Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary (Omnibus, 2009)
Science generally defines thrill as exhilaration in response to novel stimuli or experience. The attainment of novelty is rewarded with a heady biochemical cocktail of dopamine and adrenalin, which courses through our body, organs, and brain, creating waves of pleasure and arousal. Experience-seekers often pursue novelty through the superlative; for example, greater speed or greater brightness. But the most recognisable is the pursuit of greater height.
As children we begin to learn that with an increase in height comes an increase in potential energy, which provides power to have effect in and on the world: the higher my hill, the further I will roll; the higher my vantage point, the greater my strategic advantage. Height can be thrilling in itself purely because of the potential power it offers. Height, however, isn’t only used to describe vertical distance from some perceived reference point, like sea level. Great heights can be achieved in social standing, positions of authority, or even attaining perfection.
But with the novelty and exhilaration of reaching new heights can come a sudden awareness that we are teetering on the edge. Our perceived risk of losing control and falling increases. We fear that any potential energy gained might dissipate in a chaotic and traumatic fashion. We may even fear falling beyond our original reference point, to spiral into a bottomless abyss… Worse still, if the body or mind can be fooled into believing it is losing control (typical of conditions such as vertigo) then these anxieties can be triggered at much lower altitudes. The dizziness associated with the thrill of attaining great height could therefore be seen as a psycho-physiological symptom, a cause of anxiety. It might also describe the pleasurable intoxicating side effects of exhilaration, or represent the turbulence created between exhilaration and anxiety themselves.
Brendan Walker is often described as ‘the world’s only Thrill Engineer’. He originally trained as a military aeronautical engineer, before researching and teaching in Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art. Brendan now runs Aerial – a design practice specialising in the creation of tailored emotional experience, with clients such as Durex, Nissan, and Merlin Entertainment. Brendan is Professor of Creative Industries at Middlesex University, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a regular TV broadcaster – currently filming as a presenter for BBC Coast.