Thursday, February 7, 2019

Cognitive science

With the advent of projects like NIH's Human Connectome Project and more advanced brain scanning models (such as for diffusion tensor imaging), we are learning more about the brain each day.

Human brain tractography by Alfred Anwander

Cognitive neuropsychology seeks to map the brain to specific functions. For example, in the mid-1800s, Broca discovered that different parts of the brain may be associated with different functions. (He observed a patient with a damaged frontal lobe that was unable to produce speech, but could understand it.)

Today, we've appropriated cognitive science and applied it to design. It's a tool that we are building to become more powerful because of the way it can subtlety affect the behavior of myriads of people globally.

For instance, Susan Weinschenk, PhD in Psychology and behavioral science expert, published an article on Smashing Magazine titled How People Make Decisions. She introduces basic concepts in the context of selling a "Pro" tier subscription service.


Weinschenk says that we should always consider emotions in design. We need to first activate part of the frontal cortex to help users come to a "logical" decision. This part, the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex (vmPFC), mitigates fear, overriding the amygdala, which is responsible for fear-conditioning.

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex from Wikimedia

She also writes that value-based decisions are made in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and that habit-based decisions happen in the basal ganglia. Those decisions are made mutually exclusively, and you want to prevent the goal-directed process during sales by withholding data.

MRI of Orbitofrontal cortex from Wikimedia

Combined with "thick data," or prescriptive analytics, explaining why we do what we do, it seems as though every product in the future is going to be designed for guaranteed consumption.

I can't help but think that one day we will have mastered brain science. And that those in power will have access to the map of the human brain and use it to manipulate our volition and agency. Especially if the effects are subtle and profound.

Though only in the context of sales, Weinschenk says that offering too many choices is not conducive to making a decision. So according to cognitive psychology, it is in the best interest of product designers to offer fewer options, but isn't that idea antithetical to my right as a consumer to free choice?

Maybe I'm just conflating neurology with cognition, but because I am a person that would take the red pill over the blue any day, I think systems should be designed in a way that lends to our competency as individuals, minimizes the impacts of our emotions, and gives us equal, impartial, and transparent options.

Red pill or blue pill? Wikimedia

It's possible one day that we will have our individual brains mapped, just like more of us are having our genome sequenced.* Whether we like it or not, more stakeholders will have access to that information, even though if we collectively want it siloed. Is our brain the final frontier when it comes to our privacy?

* = Even the NHS is considering selling genetic sequencing in exchange for patient data, according to BBC News. This follows their 100,000 Genome Project, where already 85,000 patients and 15,000 tumors were sequenced, and 1 in 4 rare disease patients received a first-time diagnosis. 

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