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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Researcher Turns His Assistant Into a Human Drumkit

The human body is a conductor of electricity—a fact exploited by touch screens and, now, a novel way of generating music.

  • December 20, 2010

Daito Manabe has a history of conducting quirky, painful experiments in which he administers shocks to the human body – usually his own – powerful enough to cause involuntary muscle contractions. He uses electricity, music, computers and video to expand on what were literally the earliest scientific experiments ever to be recorded photographically – the electrical shocks to the face of Parisians administered in the 19th century by Guillaume Duchenne.

More videos on his work are embedded below, but first, his latest project: Manabe has integrated with a touch-sensitive control system his earlier experiments in syncing the movements of his own face to music by administering shocks powerful enough to induce involuntary muscle contractions.

To sort out what’s going on here, it helps to understand the origins of Manabe’s work: in a 2009 interview, he told me that he’d originally begun his investigations of myoelectric shocks in an effort to copy expressions from one person’s face to another. This work was itself inspired by pioneering work in electrophysiology conducted by G.B. Duchenne. (Duchenne, in turn, was inspired by Galvani, who conducted the famous experiment in which he shocked the severed legs of a frog, watched them contract, and changed the world of neuophysiology forever by showing that nerve impulses were in essence electrical.)

This iconic image of the face of an old man locked in a rictus grin by electrical stimulation was the first time photography had ever been used to record a scientific experiment.

External electric shocks are a fairly blunt instrument, which is why, in the opening of Manabe’s “electric stimulus to face -test3” he opens the piece by taking a deep breath. The 10v, 0.2mA shocks he’s receiving in the most sensitive parts of his face (the eyes, etc.) are painful. Here’s a full explanation of that experiment, VH1 pop-up video style:

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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