Feeling down? Try going for a run on this giant rainbow hamster wheel

In the corner of Melbourne’s new Science Gallery sits a huge, rainbow-coloured hamster wheel, an experiment at the border of art and science that explores how movement and colour can make us happier and healthier.

When gallery director Ryan Jefferies looks at it, he sees a hilariously apt metaphor for their year of false starts before finally managing to open the doors this week.

Melbourne University Science Gallery director Ryan Jefferies sitting on Wheel, by Hiromi Tango and Dr Emma Burrows. Credit:Paul Jeffers

“It has been those endless cycles of trying to get the gallery open,” he says.

As visitors run on the wheel, others can interact on social media by giving them “likes” for their effort. The researcher behind the work, Florey Institute neuroscientist Emma Burrows, is gathering data on how peer approval affects motivation.

For Jefferies, too, colleagues have been key to keeping his spirits up.

“The artists and scientists we’ve been working with have this genuine enthusiasm that’s infectious, it’s around changing the world, thinking about things differently, and that’s really what got me through,” he says.

During the pandemic many have found themselves searching their environment, the smaller, more static world surrounding us, for strength and resilience.

Last year during a lockdown, the sight of a double rainbow, reflected on a river into a wheel of colour, brought artist Hiromi Tango to tears with happiness.

“The gentle, simple joy of nature comforted me,” the Japanese Australian artist says.

She hopes to share a reflection of that comfort in Wheel, which she co-created with Burrows.

Colour has always been intimately connected with mood in her life – and she knows she’s not alone, she passionately believes in the power of art to bring joy.

“Since I was a young child I was always attracted to bright colours, and I wasn’t sure why,” she says. “In Japan [where she was born] … you’re not really allowed to wear yellow or rainbow colours, you’re regarded as eccentric.”

But she was constantly playing with paint, mixing colours to make new ones, following her instinct. And she found a deep connection between her colours and her mood.

“What moves us is not a number, a measurement,” she says. “It’s art, emotions and smells and agony and human mistakes or chaos or experimentations.”

Tango has a lifelong history of panic attacks and anxiety, coming from a family background of mental health issues. Through her art, she explained in a TEDx talk last year, she wants to create “a space where everyone can enjoy and feel relaxed and be themselves… where joy and happiness and sadness coexist harmoniously”.

Until now Dr Burrows has usually worked with mice, exploring how positive, playful environments impact motivation, mood and ability to learn. Wheel is part of her first experiments with humans.

“Rainbows are rare, and our brains are attuned to attending to the rare,” she explains. She hopes Wheel “helps to illustrate that exercise doesn’t have to be a gruelling task – we can all find different and novel ways to exercise that are joyful”.

As Tango puts it: “This is the beginning of the big rainbow dream we have.”

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