Emotional Cartography: Christian Nold and William Blake

Sensory deprivation mapFrom the indispensable psychology and neuroscience blog Mind Hacks, some information on Christian Nold and his “emotional cartography.” Writes Nold:

Bio Mapping is a community mapping project … In the context of regular, local workshops and consulltations (s9c), participants are wired up with an innovative device which records the wearer's Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), which is a simple indicator of the emotional arousal in conjunction with their geographical location. People re-explore their local area by walking the neighbourhood with the device and on their return a map is created which visualises points of high and low arousal. By interpreting and annotating this data, communal emotion maps are constructed that are packed full of personal observations which show the areas that people feel strongly about and truly visualise the social space of a community.

Nold goes on to ask, “How will our perceptions of our community and environment change when we become aware of our own and each others intimate body states?” That's more of a forecast than a description of his current work. He's predicting a technology that allows people to read the emotions of others in real-time. His current maps essentially measure only stress, and the results are published retrospectively and not in real time.

But it raises a number of interesting questions and possibilities. Before we go there, however, it's worth mention that, while Nold may be science's first “emotional cartographer,” literature's been there already. Take William Blake's London:

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

Blake's cartography isn't only emotional, although it's intensely emotional. It's also economic, political, and psychological (the “mind-forged manacles” evoking everything from learned helplessness to crushing social convention.) The cagey old printer even manages to inject a little epidemiology into his mapmaking. The youthful harlot's curse sounds a lot like a venereal disease, one that condemns the unfaithful husband and his family to death. And the “marks” of “weakness and woe” that Blake inventories form the contours of his map. The wounded soldier's bloody sigh on the palace wall reduces to zero the geographical distance between the suffering of the battlefront and the comforts of the wealthy.

And all in sixteen lines.

So maybe Christian Nold hasn't caught up with the poet yet. But he's done something interesting, and there's more to come. The “emotional maps” aren't his only work, either. He's also created the Newham “Sensory Deprivation” Map, which is where the illustration above comes from. By switching up the senses people use to perceive the environment, he's helping map our geography in a new way. A very nice idea.

So what would happen if we could read the emotions of those around us in real-time? What if we could tell that the crowd around us at rush hour was overstressed, that the people at our bar band gig really liked the crazy rockabilly number we threw in, that our academic audience was becoming skeptical of our Blake-As-Cartographer thesis? Would people on the street feel more personal responsibility for the well-being of the throng around them? Would presenters and performers lose the willingness to challenge their audience? Would anybody even care?

Would politicians be even more eager to say anything the public wanted than ever before?

Nold's work can veer in any number of future directions. It could lead to new forms of psychological epidemiology, or to conceptual art works. Or to new ways of seeing the world around us, a breaker of mind-forged manacles. But he needs to be vigilant, to prevent his work from descending into an entertainment, a crowdsourced “mood ring” for the 21st Century, played with and then forgotten.

He can do it, if he gets the right support. And draws the right inspiration from cartographers like William Blake.