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What you DO affects what you THINK


What our users DO with our products--or even what they see someone else do--has a bigger effect on their brains than we might believe. How we move (or imagine moving) our bodies changes our thoughts. And if there's a mismatch between thought and physical action, brains don't like it. Whether you're designing interfaces or instructional materials, you can't afford to ignore the research on this.

The rest of this post won't make sense unless you do the following exercises, so... you've been warned.


1) Say the word "zeal" out loud. Twice, clearly.

2) Without changing the position of your mouth and lips, imagine yourself saying "zeal." Make sure you "hear" it.

3) Now--this is the important one--open your mouth as wide as you possibly can, keep it open, and imagine yourself saying the word "zeal."

So, what happened when you tried to imagine saying "zeal" with your mouth wide open? Did the state of your physical body--in this case your mouth--affect your ability to think?


1) Tighten your whole body, grit your teeth, clench your jaw, tense the muscles in your shoulders and arms, and clench your fists. Hold that position and imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room.

2) Now relax all your muscles. Let them go as limp as you can, unclench your jaw, relax the face, shoulders, hands, all the way down. Picture yourself lying on a beach listening to the sound of the waves. KEEP THAT RELAXATION in your body for the next step.

3) Holding that completely relaxed position, imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room. No matter what, do NOT let your muscles tense up.

What happened? Did the state of your muscles affect your ability to think?

Both of these exercises are from neuroscientist Richard Restak's latest book, The Naked Brain. From the book:

"Our mental processes are sufficiently tethered to our bodily senses that we have difficulty with situations when the brain and other parts of the body aren't in sync."

Even more dramatic, in a test measuring the association of arm posture and attitude, he demonstrates that the way you hold your arms affects how you feel about items you encounter. Apparently even just imagining items while your arms are extended in the "pushing away" position can cause you to like those items less than if you imagined them while your arms were in a flexed "bringing-to me" position.

One experiment he describes:

"Half of the participants in the experiment were asked to push a lever away from them if they reacted positively to a particular word but pull it toward them if the word gave rise to negative associations, while the other half of the participants were told to do the opposite, pulling forward with positive words and pushing away with negative words. Overall, people were faster to respond to positive words when they were pulling instead of pushing the lever, and faster to respond to negative words when they were pushing rather than pulling the lever."

In another experiment, half the participants were told simply to push a lever the instant they saw a word on the screen, regardless of any like or dislike. The other half were told to pull a lever the instant they saw a word. You can imagine what happened... those asked to push the lever reacted more quickly to negative rather than positive words, and those asked to pull reacted more quickly to positive words.

And of course scientists have found evidence now that simply thinking about an action--or watching someone else do the action--activates the same brain regions that would be involved in actually doing it yourself.

I'm sure you can imagine the implications, including one of the key design principles known as natural mapping, outlined so well by Don Norman in The Psychology of Everyday Things (the title was later changed to "The Design of Everyday Things).

A quintessential example of mapping for those new to design:

A switch for moving something up or down should have "up" position move the thing up and the "down" position move the thing down. The most ridiculous example of bad/incorrect mapping would be to reverse that--the "up" switch position moves the thing down, and vice-versa.

Usually we think of mapping in the context of usability and "mental models"--the most natural mapping helps the user intuitively do the right thing without having to consciously think, learn, or remember the switch positions. But Restak's brain/body link goes beyond just mapping, and into attitudes. And when you factor in mirror neurons, then even just the pictures you use on your website can matter.

Consider the following two pictures, and think about your feelings related to each one:



Even if you don't consciously notice anything significant, your brain is still doing that "pushing away = dislike, bringing in = like" thing. (Technically, this is an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison because I was forced to switch genders (I couldn't find suitable pictures of two men or two women), but you still get the idea.)

I'd very much like to hear your thoughts about the body/thought connection, and how it might relate to the kinds of work we're all doing...

Posted by Kathy on December 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Digging out...

Wow -- this is supposedly the biggest snow storm here in a quarter-century. The airport is closed until at least tomorrow... the National Guard is out there now (Denver International is a United hub, so it must be crazy out there). Hello to all my other stranded Colorado friends! : )

My car:


Clover ran outside, fell in, panicked, and "swam" back in:


Now she refuses to leave the house:


Posted by Kathy on December 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack

We're in a blizzard


We're supposed to get a foot of snow today and another foot tomorrow. Flights are cancelled, highways are closed, and I'll be VERY surprised if we don't lose power here at the farm. Fortunately my horses are from Iceland--they're outside loving it and mocking the foofy dressage horses shivering in blankets. The two big horses in the picture--Pride and Dandy--are my roommate Mary's percherons that spent last winter logging in the Canadian bush. (Here's a Quicktime movie of her husband skidding out a log--this is a seriously extreme sport/job). [note: these are beetle-kill logs; they're not chopping down live trees]

This makes my fifth winter living in Colorado--after a lifetime in southern California--and I'm still physically, mentally, and emotionally unprepared for living with snow. But this means there'll be powder at Copper Mountain, so... I can deal with it. ; )

Stay warm, everyone.

Posted by Kathy on December 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Sometimes the magic is in the imperfections


What makes indie films more appealing than so many of the huge Hollywood productions? What makes indie music more interesting than the slick big label big production records? What's the magic that disappears when you hear the studio-mix version of something you once heard live? Not that most of us have the problem of too big a budget for our own good, but still... maybe we should think about whether some imperfections might be a good thing. Maybe we should consider whether we're trying too hard to smooth all the rough edges.

I'm not even sure this applies to much other than music and movies, but it's definitely a big deal there. A couple examples:

David Gray
His breakout hit, Babylon, was on the album White Ladder -- an album he produced mostly in his apartment, using electronic sounds to back up his acoustic guitar and piano. One of the best parts of that record was the combination of cheesy drum machine sounds and the faint hint of traffic noise from the street below. It definitely had that home-made, soulful feel.

Fast forward-- he gets big and ultimately his last album was a big, slick, high production value studio recording that sucked the life right out of the music. (In my opinion)

Howie Day
If you had a chance to see this kid play live during the 2000-2001 time especially, you know what I'm talking about. I saw him at a small, used record store in Denver the first time in 2000, and he walks out with an acoustic guitar... and some strange foot controller devices. He constructs the songs in realtime, using looping and other effects to layer in percussion, other voices, different guitar parts, etc. It was captivating. But then his records--where he has an Actual Band to do the work--all sound like so much pop music crap. It lost the imperfections that came with building a song on-the-fly with one person and some gear.

I happened to see Thomas Dolby the other night, in the fantastic DeviantART show with BT, and Dolby also does a lot of his music through layering in pieces in realtime. I've never much cared for his music--certainly not enough to buy it and play it at home--but his show was amazing, and now I'm much more interested in his records. One of the really fun things in his show was his head-cam-- you get to see what he's looking at when he's fiddling the midi controls, switching rapidly between various input devices, etc.

If you happen to be near a city where the tour is (MD, PA, VA, NY are the remaining shows, I think), you should check it out. And the BT show will make your head explode in a good way.

I'm not sure how much this notion of overproduction vs. imperfection applies to other products, but I suspect it does, depending on how you define perfection. A typo in a book would be a mistage, not an imperfection that gives it life. But a more casual tone that occasionally violates your fourth-grade Grammar Rules might be just the imperfection it needs. I don't know. What do you think? Is there an "indie sensibility" that applies to other things besides music, film, and fashion?

Posted by Kathy on December 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack