What we learned from following Shia LaBeouf’s heart

Is this the most personal an online connection can get? Experts weigh in

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This week, Shia LaBeouf’s heartbeat has been online. While at SXSW, the actor and artist (he’d argue the two are the same) has been wearing a heart monitor that’s been providing a live stream of his heartbeat on follow-my-heart.net. The artwork, produced by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner using technology developed by social media upstart pplkpr, made LaBeouf’s heart yours to follow, fall asleep to, share links to, and accidentally leave playing in forgotten tabs.

Is this the most personal an online connection can get? Back in 1996, psychologist and communication professor Joe Walther coined the term “hyperpersonal” to describe the way in which online chatting can be even more intimate than meeting someone face-to-face. That intimacy, counter-intuitively, comes from what’s left out rather than what’s there: what’s going on outside the Instagram frame? What did she mean when she said LOL? By picking and choosing the bits of ourselves we get to represent online, Walther argued we channel an “optimised”, socially desirable, self-edited version of ourselves, in a way we’re not able to when clumsy things like bodies get in the way.

Today, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson argues pretty convincingly that we live in an “augmented reality,” where those optimised selves are just as real as our ‘real’ selves. Rejecting the idea that digital life is at all separate to, or less than, the physical world, Jurgenson says it’s about time we faced up to the fact that what happens in our online lives is just as impactful as what happens outside of them. Your heart can skip a beat in an IM chat; you can get your heart broken on Facebook.

For LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner, #FOLLOWMYHEART is an exploration of just how intimate digital space can get. The heart, they tell Dazed, is our “emotional epicentre”, and to listen to another’s is a “reminder of our collective humanity”. Intimacy is the lifeblood of the project. “We were interested in how, by transmitting this on the web, on that most public of platforms, the experience could nonetheless be imbued with a sense of deeply personal, one-to-one closeness and connection, using technology to collapse the distances between us.”

With that in mind, we wanted to find out: how much can you learn about LaBeouf from tuning into his pulse online? How does it make you feel about him? Is it possible to know him a little bit better? Dazed spoke to a handful of heart and intimacy experts to get them to listen to Shia’s emotional epicentre and give their take.

 

MIA GOTH, ACTOR/MODEL/OWNER OF SHIA’S HEART

“At 56 BPM, I think Shia is likely having a conversation. Given that that’s a pretty typical heart rate, I’m sure he must be feeling quite calm and collected, that he knows what he’s talking about to be true. Listening to his heartbeat makes me feel protected, the rhythm of his heart has a safety to it. A sort of meditative calm to it. It blocks the whole world out.

“I think (the heartbeat is) one of the most honest and primitive platforms to truly understand someone. The sound of a heartbeat deafens all pretense. It’s both subjective and objective. Our source of life has a very honest voice. A heartbeat will never lie to you. It’s one of the profound truths of human existence. A person’s heart acts like an emotional compass. Everyone has a feeling barometer. Everyone is able to listen to their heart and intuitively, compassionately and passionately know what is right. The heart is the foundation of a person’s character.”

DR BERNIE HOGAN, HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION RESEARCHER (OXFORD UNIVERSITY)

“The thing that struck me the most is how decontextualised it was. I listened in my office this morning at 11, so that was probably 6am (in Austin). He was probably sleeping. It was probably a completely unremarkable point in his life, dreaming in a hotel room or something. But I don’t know. So, given the paucity of information – just like with everything else we do on the internet, we fill it up with our imagination, and project both our ideas about context on to this, and also our emotional sentiments. This happens all the time. This is why the three dots showing someone is typing on a text message are so intense; staring at these dots, waiting to see what’s coming. Because we don’t know the context. We’re waiting for that, we’re deferring our emotional reaction. And in the meantime, while we defer that reaction, we project all sorts of ideas onto that that are a reflection of us more than the other person. So in this case, what may be most fascinating, is how somebody else’s heartbeat turns back on to us and how we feel about ourselves, as much as how we would feel about him. Because there’s so little of him that we can infer from a heartbeat.

The real-time nature of this disrupts the easy way in which I could say, ‘You’re a celebrity, you’re separate, you’re out there, you just give me the polished presentation.’ You can’t do that very easily if you believe that this is actually his heart. He is no longer just an object, he is, like me, a living being. In fact, what’s interesting about this piece is that it might be the minimal amount of information required in order to get that sense of someone as a subject. Because, despite how minimal the information is... It’s the immediacy of the time, the fact that it’s real-time and it’s happening now. My heart beats in the present, as does his, as does yours. Despite how minimal this is, it’s the temporal immediacy that is very striking.

We don’t often think about temporal immediacy. We often think of immediacy in terms of space; we think of someone as being close in space. But especially for people in, say for example long distance relationships, when you send text messages back and forth, and every now and then the person responds right away, you know that they’re present. You know that they’re available. It’s a different kind of immediacy, it’s a different kind of nearness. But it’s still very much a kind of nearness.”

“He is no longer just an object, he is, like me, a living being” – Dr Bernie Hogan

SOPHIE COLLINS, POET

Report with Poetic License

5:16–5:31pm (DMT), March 18, 2015

(Live stream begins)

“I know little about heartbeats in general, but very much about my own in particular. This solipsistic approach to health has sometimes led to a kind of internal collapse…

I have occasionally engaged in extended discussion on others’ heartbeats, but only to the extent that I was able to resume discussion of my own heartbeat, and never without the subject present, until now…

After listening for several minutes, I notice my heartbeat has synchronised with that of the subject, and I experience an unaccountable sense of disappointment…

 ‘Water stallions,’ I think. And then, ‘I could love this sound.’” (Here, the connection fails.)

DR MEHDI RAZAVI, CARDIOLOGIST (TEXAS HEART INSTITUTE)

“I think at the end (of listening to Shia’s heartbeat), I heard two skip beats. There was a normal cadence, and then towards the end there were two of what we call ‘premature beats’. My guess just based on that would be that he’s not during the throes of a workout, but you can actually see (premature beats) very often after a workout, when you’re starting to cool down. Also, if you’ve had a coffee or something of that nature, that can cause that. If I started hearing that all during the day, all the time, then you’d have to think that something else is going on, and I’d want to get a monitor to look at the actual rhythm.

“Skip beats are common. The normal number of skip beats is about 200 a day. We typically don’t feel them; when you see it on a monitor it can be a little bit more disconcerting. It’s not something we get too concerned about. When there are couplets or triplets of skip beats, that’s a bit more concerning. 

“The heart rate can give us a lot of information. It’s actually quite sensitive, and crosses all kinds of different parameters in terms of the pathologies or the overall conditioning of the heart. A sign of health is if, during sleep, someone’s heart rate slows down. Someone who’s otherwise healthy, if their heart rate doesn’t slow down at least into the 50s when they’re asleep, that’s probably a sign that their cardiovascular fitness is compromised. Another thing to keep an eye on is, when you’re exercising, does the heart rate go up too fast? That’s not necessarily a good thing. The final thing is looking at the heart rate after the meal time – you want to see a gradual decrease in the heart rate, that’s a normal response.”

“The experience of listening felt quite odd – it feels like you have a connection with him, or rather some access into his life and experience” – Dr Jane Aspell

DR JANE ASPELL, PSYCHOLOGIST (ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY)

“I listened to the heartbeat this morning and noticed that it sounded quite slow. I saw that it was only about 5am in Texas when I was listening, so I thought that Shia was probably asleep at the time. I was wondering if he might be dreaming and if he had an exciting dream, would that speed his heartbeat up?! It’s really quite a thought-provoking project – the experience of listening felt quite odd. It feels like you have a connection with him, or rather some access into his life and experience, even though the information communicated is very minimal.

“I ran a rather strange experiment with some colleagues in Switzerland in which we wired some people up with ECG electrodes to measure their heartbeat and at the same time filmed them with a video camera and put some virtual reality goggles on their head (connected to the video camera) so that they could see what the camera filmed – i.e. their own body from the outside, as another person can see it. Then we superimposed a flashing silhouette (like an aura) around the visual image of their body and this thing flashed in time with their heartbeat on some sessions, but in other sessions the flashing was out of time. So far, so strange... We found that when the people viewed this ‘externalised, visualised heartbeat’ on their ‘virtual body’, they felt more connected to it. They identified more with the virtual body and also experienced that their self was outside of their body – a bit like having an out-of-body experience. So it seems that if you project self-related bodily information, e.g. about your heart beating, on to something external, you can alter your self-consciousness.”

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