Design revolves around finding a pain point or gap and then creating a solution for it. That’s the essence of what good design is and what good design should be. But my design interests have always sat slightly to the left or right of that core principle. What drives me is the reasons, behaviours and cognitive biases that make someone want to use (or not!) a piece of design, a service or a pattern, and not necessarily the thing itself. More importantly, I want to design products that actually move the cognitive needle – drive people back into itself and with that return, allow it to change us in some way shape or form – often quite literally.
One of the major themes in my work is the idea of a “life space” – A “life space” is the combination of all factors that influence a person’s behavior at a given moment in time, not just the screen in front of them. Therefore, a life space may include instantaneous thought, memory, drives and motives, personality, biases as well as the situation and external environmental factors.
There have been numerous studies over the decades, looking at the way the brain evolves and changes over the course of our lives. Every situation we encounter, every life moment we live in has an effect on the brain. It’s what gives us our individual personalities.
It’s an ever-evolving and solving 1.5kg blob of plasticity.
I started working in Investing Solutions four or five years ago and one of the areas I studied at length was the effects of stress on the brain. I was really fascinated to discover that hormonal responses generated by stressful situations generate subsequent risk taking attitudes. I was also blown away to discover that there is now enough empirical evidence to suggest that exposure to long-term stress can cause what’s know as ‘Hippocampal Atrophy‘ – Something normally associated with memory-loss conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a pretty frightening side-effect when you stop to think about how hugely stressful the lives many of us live are.
What if we could create the opposite effect? What if we could actually use the digital experiences we create to start to reverse the effects of atrophy and change certain Behavioural Biases to make us behave better or just think differently? In theory it may actually be possible to stave off the effects of stress and mild forms of depression – maybe even before they appear – using brain focused functions so simplistic in their design that they seem almost too good to be true.
What’s commonly know now is that within the suffers of stress and forms of depression is a tendency to “amplify” unpleasant information and that makes the brain overreact to negative emotional stimuli. It’s also been shown that the children or partners of mental health patients are potentially at higher-than-normal risk of developing the same condition themselves, in part because they may inherit their parent or loved ones trait to overreact. It’s an inherited behavioural bias. So working backwards from suffers themselves, to some of the people around them, may be a really important place to start.
Reversing a behavioural bias and start to “rewire” the brain isn’t as complex as it might sound. We just need to design the right experiences into the services we build.
The trick is going to be teaching people (implicitly or explicitly) how to control the activity that is generated in a network of interrelated brain regions that are directly linked to stress and depression – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. We can already do that using basic Neural Feedback Displays – hell, I’ve been playing with several cheap and cheerful EEG gizmos for years now. They don’t do much more than let me see roughly and crudely what’s going on inside my head, but that’s somehow a good enough place to start and it gives me a deeper connection to myself. When I perform an action, it shows me what the reaction inside my brain is, and that starts to show me more about myself than I knew before.
One of the exercises I’ve been studying shows neural feedback in the form of a thermometer on the screen. You show people sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their “temperature”, and then get them to try to lower that “temperature” by adopting more sanguine mental states. After a while you start to work what the reaction looks like and in doing so create a sort of mental pro-action to stop it occurring in the first place. It’s therapy friends, but not as we know it.
You can start to reverse the behavioural bias. Over the course of a period of time you can start to change the actual structure of the brain. Which is a pretty neat concept.
There’s another technique where a pair of faces is shown to someone on a screen every few seconds; either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaces one of the faces, and the user is asked to click on the dot. During one particular experiment using the dot technique, some people had the face replaced by the dot selected at random, but other people always had the dot replace the more positive face in the pair. Over a period of time of engaging in the dot technique, the group that had the dot replacing the positive face, where in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.
This kind of attentional-bias training, is so simplistic that most good scientists would bet that it could not alter psychological symptoms. But they’d lose the bet.
In both the examples above it’s been proven that stress-related responses – for example, increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – to negative stimuli – are significantly reduced using both techniques. These stress responses are a key marker of depression, and they diminished roughly one week after the experiments began. Incidentally, some people in the experimental groups also developed fewer defensive responses to negative faces, such as startled blinking however the people in the control groups showed no such improvement.
In another experiment researchers at Cardiff University showed eight people how their brains reacted to positive imagery. After four sessions the participants with mental health conditions had seen significant improvements in their depression.
Was it a placebo effect? Possibly. But so what, that’s still a positive outcome!
As part of the same experiment another eight people with mental health problems were asked to do the exercise but just think positively and were not shown the brain images. They showed no change over the same period of time.
The researchers said they believed the scans allowed participants to work out, through trial and error, which sort of positive emotional imagery was most effective for them.
Once you’ve taught someone the mindset to lower that temperature or unlearn that negative thought, it’s a simple case of asking them to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives, in normal stress related situations – Call it mindfulness, call it brain-training, call it CBT… you can even call it brainwashing if you like… it’s doesn’t matter, call it whatever best fits – the point is not the label that matters, the point is the start point of the process. You show people the mirror and they start to see themselves.
There have been plenty of experiments that have failed too by the way. Or shown only a correlation to success in a percentage of the people in the test. Which is totally to be expected.
To me, the interesting aspect of all these techniques is simply that they start by giving people an insight into themselves and their biases and only then do they work towards letting people control their own brain activity.
Most people (especially those living with stress or depression etc) are actually acutely aware and really interested in a way of engaging with themselves.
I’m not suggesting we mass ship EEG devices like EPOC to sufferers of anxiety, stress and depression so they can see what’s happening in their heads – but what I am suggesting is that we can build experiences that help people to understand themselves better and by starting there, we might in turn be able to start to help people reverse or reduce the effects of some of the conditions that can debilitate a lot of people.
People are dynamic creatures with dynamic thoughts, emotions, and psychological forces. To understand people you have to consider all possible factors that influence a person’s behavior and consider how those factors interact and change in time to influence the person’s present state.
So in designing solutions that start to move the needle on behaviour and start to break biases it’s imperative that we look at all the factors and start to influence people piece by pieces. Reversing negative brain patterns and negative cognitive biases starts with understanding the individual and moves out from there to a series of small interactions that gently nudge the brain into reverse.
It’s a noble idea I know… and probably one that many of you would scoff at. But my brain is already growing out of the curiosity of where this might lead me.