The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #114 — Great Stories Release Brain Chemicals

diagram of stories and brain chemicals

George Lucas and the Hero’s Journey — In 1975 George Lucas had written two drafts of Star Wars, but the story had not yet “come together”. He then re-read a 1949 book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lucas had read the book first in college, and now he re-read it. He decided to revise his Star Wars story to match one of the story archetypes that Campbell described in his book, The “Hero’s Story. A typical hero’s story usually contains the following steps:

  1. The hero is living in his ordinary world, but then he receives a message that calls him to adventure and a higher purpose.
  2. He often is reluctant to go on the adventure.
  3. He has an encounter with someone wise who encourages him to take the first step.
  4. He faces some kind of test.
  5. He encounters helpers.
  6. He has to undergo a harrowing ordeal.
  7. He is successful and brings back some kind of treasure.
  8. He is transformed and brings the treasure to the rest of the world.

The Hero’s Journey is an example of one of the 7 archetypal story plots that Campbell described. The Hero’s Journey is a version of the “Overcoming a monster” story. Here’s a summary of the seven:

  1. Overcoming a monster—The protagonist has to defeat an antagonist (monster) who is threatening the protagonist’s homeland (for example, Star Wars).
  2. Rags to riches—The protagonist is poor and suddenly becomes wealthy with money, power, and/or a mate. The protagonist loses it all, but then grows as a person and gets the important riches back (for example, Cinderella).
  3. The quest—The protagonist and friends set out to get something important, face lots of challenges along the way, and eventually are triumphant (for example, The Lord of the Rings).
  4. Voyage and return—The protagonist goes to a foreign place, makes it through many dangerous situations, and comes back without anything of value, except a personal transformation (for example, The Chronicles of Narnia).
  5. Comedy—The protagonist is somewhat of a fool and gets into lots of embarrassing situations and near-disasters, but in the end triumphs over all the adversities and finds happiness (for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  6. Tragedy—There may be a protagonist, or an antagonist. He or she ends up with a tragic ending/death. He or she may learn from the troubles encountered along the way, but not enough to be redeemed in this life (for example, Macbeth).
  7. Rebirth—Instead of a protagonist, there’s an antagonist. He or she learns and is redeemed over the course of the story (for example, Beauty and the Beast).

These common plots resonate with people. When a story follows one of these plots, people can easily understand the story and are more likely to become involved.

Drawing blood while you are watching a video — Paul Zak is a neuroscientist who is interested in brain chemicals. He drew blood from study participants while they watched different videos to measure brain chemicals. Zak was interested in what story elements would cause which brain chemicals to release. He found that when people felt distress they released cortisol, and when they felt empathy they released oxytocin.

The dramatic story arc comes from Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist. Freytag studied plays and stories from the Greeks and Shakespeare through to stories from his own time. According to Freytag, an effective story is divided into five parts:

Diagram of dramatic story arc

 

  1. Exposition—The exposition is the introduction. It sets the time and place, the protagonist or hero, the antagonist or villain, other characters, and the basic conflict of the story.
  2. Rising action—The rising action is where the conflict that was introduced during the exposition starts to grow. Tension increases. The initial conflict becomes more complicated.
  3. Climax—The climax is the turning point. At the climax, the protagonist has a change of fate. If it’s a comedy, then before the climax things were not going well for the protagonist, but after the climax things look up. If it’s a tragedy, then the opposite happens. Things get worse for the protagonist. The climax is the highest point in the arc.
  4. Falling action—After the climax, it may seem that everything is done, but that’s actually not true. This is the last point of suspense. Unexpected things may still happen, so the outcome that the audience thought was set during the climax may or not occur.
  5. Denouement—People tend to call the last part of the arc the conclusion, but Freytag called it the denouement. This is a French word referring to an unraveling or untying of a knot. The protagonist either comes out on top (comedy) or the antagonist does (tragedy).

Zak found that during the rising action people release cortisol, at the climax people release oxytocin if they feel empathy with the main character, and if there’s a happy ending people release dopamine. Interest can be maintained by cycling through these story pieces and keeping the brain chemistry going (see the image at the top of the post).

What do you think? Do your favorite stories follow the dramatic story arc? Are they one of the 7 archetypal stories? Is this why Batman vs. Superman was considered a not great movie?

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

HumanTech — Check out the new podcast

Logo for HumanTech podcastJust a quick announcement to let you know we’ve started a new weekly podcast called HumanTech.

I’m hosting this podcast with my (amazing) son, Guthrie. Here’s the description at iTunes:

HumanTech — A podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. We explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

Check out our first episode on the Internet of Things, and I hope you will subscribe to the weekly podcast on iTunes and on Stitcher.

 

 

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #102 — The Best Way To Process Big Data Is Unconsciously

picture of David Eagleman wearing his sensory vest
David Eagleman wearing the sensory vest

Jason is 20 years old and he’s deaf. He puts on a special vest that’s wired so that when it receives data, it sends pulses to his back.

The vest is connected to a tablet. When I say the word “book” into a microphone that feeds into the tablet, the tablet turns the word into a signal that is sent to the vest. Jason now feels a pattern on his back through his sense of touch. Initially, he can’t tell you what the word is. I keep saying words and he keeps feeling the patterns. Eventually, he’ll be able to tell me the words that he’s hearing. His brain learns to take the pattern and translate that into words.

The interesting thing is that this happens unconsciously. He doesn’t have to consciously work at learning the patterns.

This describes an actual project by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist from the Baylor College of Medicine.

Sensory Substitution — Eagleman calls it sensory substitution. Information comes into your body and brain from your eyes, ears, touch, and so on. But did you know that the brain is actually quite flexible and plastic in this regard? When data from the environment comes in, from any of the senses, the brain figures out the best way to analyze and interpret it. Sometimes you’re consciously aware of the data and its meaning, but most of the time your brain is analyzing data and using that data to make decisions, and you don’t even realize it.

Sensory Addition — Eagleman takes the idea of sensory substitution a step further, to sensory addition. He has people (without hearing impairments) put on the vest. He takes stock market data and uses the same program on the tablet to turn the stock market data into patterns, and sends those patterns to the vest. The people wearing the vest don’t know what the patterns are about. They don’t even know it has anything to do with the stock market. He then hands them another tablet where a screen periodically appears with a big red button and a big green button.

Eagleman tells them to press a button when the colors appear. At first they have no idea why they should press one button versus the other. They’re told to press a button anyway, and when they do, they get feedback about whether they’re wrong or right, even though they have no idea what they are wrong or right about. The buttons are actually buy and sell decisions (red is buy, green is sell) that are related to the data they’re receiving, but they don’t know that.

Eventually, however, their button presses go from random to being right all the time, even though they still don’t know anything consciously about the patterns. Eagleman is essentially sending big data to people’s bodies, and their brains interpret the data and make decisions from it—all unconsciously.

Engaging the unconcsious for big data — Big data refers to large data sets that are combed for predictive analytics. The idea is that if you can collect massive amounts of data, even disparate data, and analyze it for patterns, you can learn important information and make decisions based on that information. Data sets of Internet searches, Twitter messages, meteorology, and more are being collected and analyzed. But how do you convey the information in a way that makes sense? How can you get the human mind to see patterns in what at first seems like meaningless data? The conscious thought process is not very good at this task. The conscious mind can handle only a small subset of data at one time, but the unconscious is great at taking in large amounts of data and finding patterns. If you want to see the patterns in big data, you have to engage the unconscious.

A Sensory Room — Other scientists are also working on the idea. Jonathan Freeman, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Paul Verschure, a professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, have created the eXperience Induction Machine (XIM). The XIM is a room with speakers, projectors, projection screens, pressure-sensitive floor tiles, infrared cameras, and a microphone. A person stands in the room and big data visualizations appear on the screen. Freeman and Verschure monitor the response of the person in the room through a headset. They can tell when the person is getting overloaded or tired, and then they can make the visuals simpler.

Go direct — When you work with big data, consider the idea of bypassing complex visual analysis and how to represent the data analytically. It’s probably better to feed the data directly to sense organs and let the brain do the analytics.

For more information — Here’s a great TED Talk by Dr. Eagleman

If you liked this article check out my new book, 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People. 

 

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The Neuro-Aesthetics of Hillary’s Campaign Logo

logo for Hillary campaign
hillaryclinton.com

Yesterday Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President of the US, and before 24 hours went by I had a media request to talk about why people were reacting so strongly (in a negative way) to her logo.

I’m in the middle of writing my next book (100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People) and I’ve just sent in the chapter on Visual Design which contains some new research on neuro-aesthetics — how our brain reacts to certain visual design elements.

Based on the research, here’s the brain science behind the vitriol:

People prefer objects with curves and you can even “see” the preference in brain scans. This field of study is called neuroaesthetics.

Moshe Bar (Director of the Cognitive Neurosciences Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital) and his team used images of everyday and abstract objects to see if people have a preference for objects with curves. In one of their early studies Moshe Bar and Maital Neta (2006) showed 140 pairs of objects. Some were concrete objects such as watches or couches (the A objects in the picture below), some were abstract objects (the B objects) and some of the objects had both curves and edges. These last objects acted as baseline controls (the C objects).

pictures of curved and angular objectsPeople gave higher “liking” ratings for the objects that had curves. Bar and Neta’s theory was that the sharp and angled images would convey a sense of threat.

Ed Connor and Neeraja Balachander took this idea into a neuro imaging lab. They took an abstract shape similar to the shape on the left in the picture below and then made a series of similar but elongated shapes as shown in the rest of the picture below.

picture of rounded and elongated shapes

Not only did people prefer the softly rounded shape like the one on the left — there was more brain activity in the visual cortex with shapes that were more curved and more rounded.

We could talk about the problems with red and blue on top of each other, which produces chromostereopsis too. I’ve got another blog post about that.

But from a brain science point of view, the main reason Hillary’s logo is getting a lot of negative comments?: NO CURVES!

If you’re interested in the research I’ve got some references below, and check out 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People  the new book which will be out in October of 2015 and is available for pre-order!

What do you think? No curves? Chromostereopsis? Something else?

References:

Bar, M., & Neta, M. (2006). Humans prefer curved visual objects. Psychological Science, 17(8), 645-648.

H. Leder, P.P.L. Tinio, and M. Bar (2011) Emotional valence modulates the preference for curved objects. Perception, 40, 649-655.

Paul J. Silvia and Christopher M. Barona, “Do People Prefer Curved Objects? Angularity, Expertise, and Aesthetic Preference”, Empirical Studies of the Arts 01/2009; 27(1):25-42.

Your Brain On Stories

Drawing of a brainOne day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who didn’t want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I said  “Hello everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the ship Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever.

Everyone likes stories. We like to listen to stories, read stories, watch stories (movies, TV, theatre) and tell stories. In fact, stories are our normal mode of information processing. Stories are so normal to us that we don’t even stop to think about why that is.

Let’s say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I’m NOT telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you’re listening, as well as Wernicke’s area of the brain where words are processed. If you were reading a newspaper article on the same topic then we would see, again Wernicke’s area as well as your visual cortex as you are reading.

But what if I started telling you a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy – a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care… what’s going on in your brain now?  the Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, BUT now there’s more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, your olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Which means that you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, researches the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical in the brain that Zak says gives the “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. In his research he has discovered that:

  • If you develop tension in the story you will sustain attention.
  • If you sustain attention then it is more likely that the people hearing the story will start to share the emotions of the main characters in the story.
  • If people share the emotions of the main characters then they are likely to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters when the story is over.
  • Listening to a character story like this can cause oxytocin to be released.

And if oxytocin is released then it is more likely that people will trust the situation and the storyteller and more likely that they will take whatever action the storyteller asks them to take.

What do you think? Do you use stories purposely to increase engagement when you communicate?

Are You Addicted To Texting?

One of my early blog posts was about dopamine, and since then our smartphones have become even more capable of triggering a “dopamine loop.” So I thought I would re-visit the topic. Especially because I just did an animated video on the topic for the Brain Signal youtube channel:

It’s all about dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is found all through our body. In our brains dopamine is involved in a lot of our behavior, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward.

Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. Researchers used to think that dopamine was the “pleasure” chemical. But Kent Berridge’s work at the University of Michigan distinguishes between dopamine, the “wanting” system, and the opioid system as the “liking” system. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied, so we pause our seeking. The wanting system is stronger than the liking system. We seek more than we are satisfied.

Dopamine induces a loop — it starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. Which is what I think happens when we respond to texts, or emails. The result is that we can’t stop looking at email, texting, or checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.

The theoroy of classical conditioning in psychology tells us that we can become conditioned to respond to auditory or visual cues that a reward has, or is going to, arrive. Our smartphones beep and flash and show little icons when we have messages or texts, all adding to the addictive effect. Between classical conditioning and dopamine it can feel like you are addicted!

What do you think? Do you have a hard time not checking your phone when you hear that special tone?

The Brain Science Of Why Stepping Away Increases Creativity

Drawing of the brain

We’ve all had the experience: You’re trying to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. You’ve been sitting at your desk, or discussing it in meetings, but you haven’t come up with a solution or the right idea. Then you step away — go for a walk, go to lunch, weed the garden, wash the dishes, or go to sleep. And then, suddenly you get an “a ha” moment and the answer or new idea comes to you in a flash. Why does that happen?

It has to do with how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head (think forehead). The role of the PFC (among many things)  is to concentrate on the task at hand, as well as to go searching for existing information you have stored in memory, and combine it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas. Here’s the rub — If you keep your PFC too focused on the “task at hand” then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the garden, the shower, the dishes) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!

What do you think? Have you experienced the power of stepping away?

Want more information like this? Then check out our two Creativity courses. One is an online video course and the other is an in-person workshop on April 9 in Chicago IL.

How To Get People To Do Stuff: #3 — A Hard-To-Read Font Will Activate Logical Thinking

I am taking a chance here, because I know that the subject of fonts is always controversial, and if I say that you should use fonts that are hard to read I’ll be blasted by many of my readers! But I have to share this fascinating research on how mental processing changes in some surprising ways when people read text that is in a hard to read font vs. an easy to read font. Below is the video.

For more information check out:

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast And Slow

and my new book (when it comes out in March 2013 — available for pre-order now at Amazon) How To Get People To Do Stuff

In a previous video on confirmation bias I talk about Daniel Kahneman’s idea of System 1 (quick, intuitive) thinking vs. System 2 thinking (slow, logical, analytical). Kahneman’s research shows that when a font is easy to read then System 1 thinking does its usual thing — makes quick decisions, which are not always accurate. When a font is harder to read, System 1 gives up and System 2 takes over. Which means that people will think harder and more analytically when a font is hard to read. I’m NOT suggesting you intentionally make fonts hard to read in the text you have at websites and in other places, but these findings do make me pause and think about whether we are all inadvertently or purposely encouraging people not to think about what they are reading.

Ok, let’s hear it! I know you will all want to weigh in on this one!

100 Things You Should Know About People: #94 — Repetition Changes Your Brain

Drawing of a neuronHave you ever wondered what a memory is exactly and how it gets formed? You have hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of memories in your brain. Songs you remember how to sing. Scenes from movies. Memories of last year’s holiday. Facts such as the names of all the planets, and on and on. Do you know what a memory is and how it gets created?

Neurons firing — There are 10 billion neurons in your brain that store information. Electrical impulses flow through a neuron and are moved by neuron-transmitting chemicals across the synaptic gap between neurons. Neurons in your brain fire every time you repeat a word, phrase, song, or phone number you are trying to memorize. Memories are stored as patterns of connections between neurons.

How a memory gets stronger — When two neurons are activated, the connections between them are strengthened. If you repeat the information enough times, the neurons form a “firing trace”. Once the trace is formed, then just starting the sequence triggers the rest of the items, and allows you to retrieve the memory. This is why you need to hear information over and over in order for it to “stick”.

Physical changes in your brain — Experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a few seconds new circuits are formed that can change forever the way you think about something or remember information.

Practice does make perfect — So whether you are trying to remember facts for your next text in school, or learn how to say “I would like a glass of wine” in a new language, or how to play the piano, the more you repeat the activity or thought, the stronger a trace you are making in your brain, and the more likely you will be to remember the information.

 

100 Things You Should Know About People: #92 — There Is A Brain Area Dedicated To Perceiving Faces

Woman's face
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

You are walking down a busy street in a large city and suddenly you see the face of one of your close relatives. Even if you were not expecting to see this person, and even if there are dozens, or even hundreds of people in your visual field, you will immediately recognize this as your (brother mother, sister, cousin). Not only will you recognize them immediately, you will also have an accompanying emotional response (love, hate, fear etc).

Fusiform face area — Although the visual cortex is huge and takes up a large amount of brain resources, there is a special part of the brain outside of the visual cortex whose role it is to recognize faces. It’s called the fusiform face area, or FFA (Kanwisher, 1997). This special part of the brain is also near the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. This means that faces grab attention, are recognized quickly, and bypass the usual brain interpreting channels.

What do you think? Do you find you react to faces at websites? Do they grab your attention?

If you like to read the research:

Kanwisher, N., McDermott J., Chun, M. (1997). The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception. Journal of  Neuroscience, 17(11), 4302–4311.