• Neuron

What does neuroplasticity have to do with web design?

One of the most interesting aspects of my job is keeping up to date with new findings in brain science, and translating this into practical applications in interface design. One thing that keeps cropping up is how people can’t digest large amounts of written content on the web. In practical terms, this leads us to devising sites that are more like snacks or buffet’s than feasts, or spending more time working on simple usability solutions to complex problems. But the psychological reasons for this are worth exploring in more depth, because they reveal the extent to which the Internet is changing the way we think.

As the years go by we are seeing two converging trends becoming locked in a feedback loop, one is the exponential increase in the amount of information on the web – by some estimates, we produce 2 exabytes of information a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s more that was produced by all of mankind – in any medium – between the year 2003 and the dawn of time.) The other trend is how this information is seeping out of the Internet and into our daily lives, through computers, location aware smartphones and a kaleidoscope of increasingly ubiquitous gadgets. Gadgets that are themselves hoovering up more and more data and storing it somewhere on the ever-growing Web. In short, the web is colonizing real life.

The upshot of this glut of information is that more and more data is competing for our conscious attention. Hence the increasing need for smarter interfaces that allow us to navigate this ocean of information without fear of drowning. But it is not just interface designs that are continually evolving to cope with the challenges of the Information Age; so are our Brains. And the speeds at which they are doing so have left some neuroscientists alarmed.

“Neuroplasticity” is the technical term to describe how our brain subtly rewires itself on a continuous basis to cope with changes to our environment. As psychiatrist Norman Doidge so eloquently wrote “Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level. Each time you imagine moving your fingers across the keys to play the piano, you alter the tendrils of your living brain.” Some have called the discovery of neuroplasticity the most important breakthrough in the understanding of the brain in the last 400 years.  Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel wrote in his paper Neurocognitive Enhancement that “humanity’s ability to alter its own brain function might well shape history as powerfully as the development of metallurgy in the iron age”.

Research by UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Gary Small in 2007 showed that as little as 5 hours of web surfing could alter you brain structure and create new, web focused neural pathways for processing information. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains,” he says.

It was an argument expanded on by Nicholas Carr and his recent book “The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to our Brains”. In it, he highlights a broad range of research from a number of disciplines, all hinting at the same issue; the Internet is grabbing our attention, and scattering it, making it harder for us to digest large chunks of content.

For instance, Carr refers to the work of Erpink Zhu, who in one experiment made a number of subjects read a piece of digital prose with a varying number of hyperlinks in the body of the text. On testing the subjects on content of the text, she discovered that comprehension of the writing declined in proportion to the number of hyperlinks in the text. In another study of people watching news reports on CNN, those who watched news without the little scrolling text box at the bottom of the screen retained more of the information being presented.

Regarding web design, this and other research shows that the more clutter on the page (images, videos and so forth) lead to more barriers there are to understanding the actual content. Why? Because our brains default setting – for obvious evolutionary reasons – is to overemphasise new information, even if that new information happens to be total nonsense.

Carr argues that this continuous state of distraction is having a negative impact on what neuroscientists call our working memory. Working memory is kind of workbench where we juggle all the bits of information we happen to be thinking about at any one moment, say if we are looking for a face in a crowd, reciting a phone number until we write it down, or doing a mental calculation. Some, such as psychologist Randall Engle believe there is a strong correlation between working memory and problem solving ability – also known as General Fluid Intelligence (gF). On a deeper level, working memory is tied to consciousness, for without it, we would have nowhere to remember what we are meant to be concentrating on.  It is also the storage depot for information before it is moved in our long term memory.

Carr’s theory is that the glut of information available to us online (and increasingly “offline”) is putting stress on our working memory, perpetually clearing it out to make way for new information before the old stuff been passed to our long term memory, leading to diminished and superficial understanding of things we are experiencing. He worries that we are “evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

This is summed up more succinctly by renowned neuroscience professor Michael M. Merzenich when he says we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap” and this is effecting our capacity to concentrate on tasks without craving novelty to the point we get itchy feet having to sit through a movie or read a few pages of a book. We’re becoming more comfortable on the web, where we can sink into a world of infinite novelty (known by the cool kids on the net as a “clicktrance”). If this sounds like Attention Deficit Disorder, you’re not far off. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls this it “Attention Deficit Trait” (ADT) – a work & web induced variant of the famous ADHD, one he believes is reaching epidemic proportions in the corporate world.

So what can we do to cope with this new data-rich environment? One could take the extreme decision of unplugging, throwing your Blackberry in the sea and going to live in a log cabin in Thailand making surfboards. But before you do that, I have a few suggestions.

1. Meditate

Studies in “focused attention meditation” (focusing on say, your breathing) by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that meditation led to a greater capacity for subjects to focus on tasks for long periods of time. Similar studies by Antoine Lutz at the Waisman Laborotory for Brain Imaging found meditation increases subject’s ability to pick out different audio tones after three months of meditation exercises. It seems that meditation exercises in which we focus on a task for a long period of time (such as a mantra) – regardless of spiritual content – is like a workout for your working memory, making it easier for you to focus on tasks that require conscious attention.

2. Exercise

There is solid research showing that regular exercise is important in maintaining a healthy working memory. Research published in the Journal Perceptual & Motor Skills showed that. “Working memory performance may also be increased by high intensity exercise. A study was conducted with both sedentary and active females 18–25 years old in which the effects of short-term exercise to exhaustion on working memory was measured. While the working memory of the subjects decreased during and immediately after the exercise bouts, it was shown that the subjects’ working memory had an increase following recovery.”

3. Demand Cleaner Web Design

If the muddled layout of your website makes your customers feel like they’ve entered a funhouse of distraction, its not doing it’s job. All research shows the “less is more” approach is key to creating more effective websites, or indeed, any type of user interface. The more elements there are on a webpage, the more we have battling for our conscious attention, and the more diluted each element becomes. We need to make websites with less clutter, fewer hyperlinks in text, and with intelligent ways of organising large amounts of data that balance usability without making the design look like the cockpit of an Boeing 747.

4. Discipline your Distractions

Many of us are servants of distraction. Even now I’m fighting the urge to click on a tab in my browser to check my email. Some services, like Twitter or Reddit for instance, are the class A narcotic of ADT. All of these are simply habits that exist in your brain as a set of neural connections that make up a kind of default setting for your behaviour. While bad habits are notoriously hard to usurp, they can be overwritten by newer, better, more productive habits. Thanks to neuroplasticity, all it takes is conscious practice and enough time.  Sometimes you need help to get you started, and luckily there are tools to help you, such as the ironically titled Self Control (Mac OSX), with which you can block websites from yourself and limit your distractions.

5. Surf Now, Read Later

If you are a medium to heavy Internet user, you might be blasted with dozens of new links and websites on a daily basis, many of them you’ll be generally interested in, but can’t bring yourself to read due to time constraints or distractions. Luckily “there’s a app for that”. Instapaper is a tool that you can plug into your web browser to save articles for reading later. You can then print the articles as a single text file from the website, or read them on your iPad or Kindle as simple text. Stripped of distractions, you can digest the content of articles as if reading a nice, distraction free book.

If you’ve made it down this far, congratulations. It’s not easy avoiding distractions like phone calls, urgent emails, the eight or nine browser tabs you may have open, the TV or radio you may have on in the background, your Facebook App, Angry Birds or doing actual work. For this reason, a growing trend on sites like Reddit and Wikipedia is to contain a section after text called TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) to sum up a whole article or post in one simple sentence, It seems fitting to finish with this;

TL;DR;  Your attention span has been wrecked by too much Internet usage man, read the full article to learn why, and how to fix it!

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