We need to talk about thrill: advice for 16 to 18 year...

We need to talk about thrill: advice for 16 to 18 year olds who are P&P-curious


If you’re anywhere between the ages of 16 and 18 then your appetite for sensation seeking is at its height, and your perception of risk is rock bottom. Go and have some fun! – you don’t need advice from me. No, I’m talking about how the practice of Engineering Thrill can work as a great example of Psychology & Physics in application, and how a curiosity of thrill can drive theoretical advancement in both these fields, and several others to boot.

This year, the practice of Engineering Thrill featured in the teaching and learning experiences of A-Level Psychology students and A-Level Physics students as two distinctly separate UK audiences – nicely balanced as one publication and one talk to each audience.

In Psychology review (February 2021, Volume 26, Number 3) I take readers on a jaunt through some experiments in psychophysiology that have influenced thinking behind some of my experimental rides, which explore and harness humans’ capacity to feel and express emotions.

In Physics World (August 2021, Volume 34, Number 8) I help journalist Michael Allen tease out the relationship between the laws of physics and the engineering of thrill; and how VR and visual illusion can alter that relationship, for the benefit of riders (see Ride with VR whheeeeee!!!)

These publications were closely followed by two public talks, each to 1,000 A-Level students. The first tailored to Physics, and the second Psychology. A beautiful venue (Emmanuel Centre, below), a great hosting organisation (The Training Partnership), and two wonderful audiences across two weeks.

However, one Psychology student’s feedback took me aback (all feedback included in footnote):

I don’t like roller coasters, but discussions of how they work are epic!

I recalled my very first lecture about thrill, A Rapid Introduction to Thrill, which I delivered at Tate Modern in 2003 at User_Mode. My presentation was reviewed in the media as being ‘sermon-like’, which still makes me smile as I was just starting out on my mission to democratise thrill. What was driving my passion? – a sense of injustice!… “Thrill isn’t the sole preserve of risk takers or adrenaline junkies. These archetypes are fabricated by marketeers. They alienate many people from enjoying experimenting with ways to elicit thrill at more nuanced levels. Roller coaster culture is the worst offender“… or something along those lines. But things were soon to get worse…


Six years later I was clinically diagnosed as a thrill seeker – or rather, I have a polymorphism of the D4DR dopamine receptor gene that lives on chromosome 11 (see here). This polymorphism, which affects 1 in 30 of the UK population, means that I can’t process dopamine effectively. My experimentations in the pursuit of thrill may seem extreme to others, but my motivation is to produce more dopamine, to feel the same amount of pleasure that others might feel at less extreme levels. However, I’m also scared of social embarrassment and physical harm. This has inhibited quite a few things I’d love to try, which at that time included extreme thrill rides. Truth! I was a bit wary of some roller coasters (don’t worry, I’ve since found ways to overcome my inhibitions)


In 2003, I would’ve happily agreed with the statement ‘I don’t like roller coasters, but discussions of how they work are epic!’. But I was on a mission, remember? and needed to liberate thrill from the clutches of non-inclusive design and messaging promoted by the (a) not-so-imaginative, or (b) risk averse (take your pick) marketeers at the time. This led me to research, write, and publish The Taxonomy of Thrill, with all its glorious links to Psychology and Physics, to name just two disciplines. This ultimately led to my employment at the Tussauds Group (now Merlin Magic Making) as a design consultant, developing future attractions, which included helping to design roller coasters (it didn’t take long to wrangle with my conscience).  Incidentally, in my talk I also reference a Bucking Bronco (one of which I later owned and operated, see here); a six degree of motion platform (an example of which I went on to develop with Middlesex University, see here); and… uh oh, I just found something else I reference in my talk, and winter is on the way…

In summary: I feel optimistic that these students of Psychology and Physics instinctively just ‘get it’ – no clichés, no archetypes – thrill for all! Perhaps thrilling entertainment is heading towards an era of inclusivity across all personality types and wants, that will transcend physical boundaries – maybe a revival of pure hedonism?

To that student: thank you for your feedback!


In the spirit of a fair and balanced reporting, here’s all feedback received in response to both talks; unedited, and without omission:

Psychology teachers:

Really engaging and responded well to questions / Enlightening and fun experience / Brilliant real world examples – really engaging! / Very clear & new areas linked with Psychology – really informative / Very interesting: how can we can incite fear and emotion / Students found this to be one of the most interesting talks / Excellent insight into different career areas / Students thought it was excellent! / Fascinating, excellent application / A great one to finish off the day. Again, the speaker was engaging and very interesting topic.  An area of psychology many students have not come across before.

Psychology students:

I really enjoyed this talk / Ten out of ten, great end to the day / Rollercoaster man!!! Ten out of ten (I don’t like roller coasters, but discussions of how they work are epic!) / Really interesting, loved the vibe of what was happening and was an area I hadn’t heard of before so all was new but not hard to understand / Very interesting / Interesting on how they make people enjoy rides / my fav person ever


Physics teachers:

Brilliant demonstration of the application of mechanics / Fun and fascinating/ Amazing talk – good to see Physics coming in to something lots of people enjoy! And forces + energy can be a dry topic so good to see in this context / Extremely interesting and applied a lot of what we do in mechanics in a fun setting / Fun, funny and fantastic / Really interesting practical application / Nicely different. Slick presentation. Good presenter / Great talk – different, interesting topic / Very engaging / Exciting careers prospects / Excellent to see physics in action with Brendan / Very original – interesting / Excellent, engaging speaker / Great fun. Very engaging speaker / Thrilling talk. I don’t know what was better, the talk or the jump suit?

Physics students:

Good talk and fun / I love rollercoasters. Now I know what’s happening / I loved to see how psychology and physics link / The engineering aspect along with emotional tracking and psychological aspects was so interesting as it is not a common link present in other fields / Really interesting, and speaker was interesting; relatable too / Use of real videos made it interactive / Fun lecture and talk: drew me in completely / Funny, interesting and engaging / Loved the jumpsuit ten out of ten / Really good set / Really really good talk one of the best / I did not realise that there is a science behind amusement parks and rollercoasters, I was very fascinated about all the inner workings that must be considered / Very interesting / I really enjoyed it / Informational / Red jumpsuit sold it mate, ten out of ten.