Using neuroscience to understand the relationship between design and society

To Thine Own Self be True
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Human beings see and understand the world through connections made in childhood. How can these layers of perception be leveraged into meaningful opportunities in the relationship between design and people?

“To thine own self be true” – a very short phrase heavily laden in discourses.


Experimental psychologist Bruce Hood is an expert on ‘the self’, maintaining that it is an illusion produced by our brains. In his book ‘The Self-Illusion‘ Hood explains that when we are born our brain is prepared to create connections and make sense of everything that surrounds us, which will later define how we experience the world. These connections for ‘making sense’ act as filters between the world and us, not allowing us to experience the world directly. We see and understand our surroundings and interactions through different layers, which make up our perceptions. The function and power of these layers are more clearly illustrated when we look at visual illusions, where we see things that are actually something entirely different. To describe how strongly our perception is shaped in childhood he highlights the importance of ‘sensitive periods’, going on to explain that if certain experiences are removed in a child’s early developmental stages there will be severe long-term effects later in life. Within those ‘windows of opportunities’, as he calls them, relevant connections in our brains are made.


He divides the ‘I experience’ into the past and present. Past experiences are stored as memories to the person we think we are now. These experiences are used as narratives, allowing us to make sense of ourselves. Anything that does not fit into our story is transformed to our liking or is rejected. This is possible because memories don’t work like film cameras. Hood goes into more detail about how memories work, explaining that even situations that did not actually happen can be transformed into lively recollections because they fit into the framework that we have created over time which has shaped our acceptance of what is real and what is not.


If our abilities and our behaviors were structured in childhood, and our perception of self was constructed through a framework that was co-created with the society we belong to, who are we? And who will we become? This brings us to a particular question that Hood has raised: how will 2-year-olds heavy use of technological devices influence their behavior in the future? Without sidestepping into forecasting too much, we can assume that certainly the way they interact socially will be different. The implications are two fold: first we must understand our own social constructions and those of others in order to then devise products, services and experiences that fulfill those very initial connections that make us who we are. At this point, the more pressing question for me is: how we can leverage knowing that we see the world through our own unique lenses and layers as an opportunity?