This fall semester, I am presenting to my industrial design students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, New York) some of the material that follows. I am also preparing applications for next summer’s academic conferences and workshops. My initial research on circular systems culminated earlier this year in a project called “Meet Your Brain,” an educational toolkit about the human brain, self awareness, empathy, social awareness, and the pursuit of an open mindset. As a very emotional and introverted person, I learned a lot about myself during this process, as well as how to infuse greater social awareness in my design work. Here are some of themes that I explored while developing “Meet Your Brain”:
What if I had an odometer on my forehead?
The human brain weighs around three pounds and stays the same size until the end of life. However, the new challenges and experiences that we encounter in daily life help to create new neurons and connections in the thalamus (the memory brain). This biological reality motivated me to make learning and trying new things daily practice in my own life.
I also started to imagine what it would be like to have odometers on our foreheads showing the number of new neurons we create each day. It might be entertaining to see the rate of change from day to day. If I created more today compared to yesterday, would this motivate me to work even harder, to search even deeper? How many new neurons would a certain task generate? What would the count be for someone becoming an expert in a field? For example, perhaps the path to becoming a senior designer would create 3458000 new neurons...
Give a brain some time during field research and observation.
Before I “met” my brain, I blamed myself for being very emotional and for jumping to conclusions too quickly. Sometimes I embarrassed myself. But, the reasons for these behaviors are biological. The distance between the thalamus (memory brain) and limbic system (emotional brain) is shorter than distance between thalamus and neocortex (Thinking brain). This micro-second distance is the reason why our emotions seem to have power over our rationality. Being emotional is an advantage for empathizing but it is not all that our brains do. Additionally, a phenomenon of our brains is the tendency to convert a first impression, idea, or decision into a long-term belief, habit, or norm.
Observing people is critical. In order to receive information from others and to put ourselves in their shoes, we must have strong cognitive and rational abilities. The information we receive from the environment around us must be met with the knowledge, scientific reasoning, and evidence before we mentally document and jump to long-lasting conclusions. In an attempt to improve my interactions with others, I started to give my brain a few extra seconds so that my neurons could bring the messages I received to my thinking brain. After a year of active practice, that narrow little countryside road of neurons which goes to my neocortex has expanded into to a four-lane highway! Now, I try to take action and make decisions after synthesizing the information I receive with both my emotional and cognitive brains. Considering that it is not only my brain that works in this way but that all the people around me have similar biological brains, it would be interesting to see the decision-making processes of others if they were to actively pause and allow for fuller processing of information as well.
A piece of chocolate!
Dopamine is my favorite neurotransmitter - I have definitely fallen in love. My body produces this fabulous neurochemical, which pushes me to survive. It is one of the reasons I become a curiosity-driven industrial designer and an ardent food lover. Dopamine is one of the most important neurochemicals in the human body. Not only does it play a huge role in human survival, but it also motivates us and encourages human curiosity; it pushes us to act to achieve something positive and to avoid something negative.
However, I misuse this chemical in my body. How? I stay in front of the internet for long periods of time. When I start researching a topic, my body starts to create dopamine in order to find out more and more. But at the end of my research, my brain needs an award, and I do not give it one. Research can be an endless pursuit on the internet. When we finish reading a book, the award mechanization starts to work. The completion of a task brings us satisfaction. How does this translate onto the internet? We stay in a continuing loop and our bodies create more and more dopamine. More searching means more dopamine, and in the end, there is no award. This process can result in sadness and depression.
So, I have started to mix up resources during my design research. This is one way to stop the wasted dopamine loop. Giving yourself a small reward - maybe a piece of chocolate - can also prove helpful.
Stay tuned for more stories about my experiences with meeting my own brain. In the meantime, have fun meeting yours and remember to love it too!