Your Brain Wants You to Read This

(see, you do!)

The brain. It seems to be everywhere. People do stuff because their brains told them so and some designs and even this blogpost will rewire your brain. While psychology carries the stigma of the ingraspability of our thoughts and the transience of our actions, the brain is something to hold on to: It is a physical thing and there is awesome science connected to it, sometimes producing nice images with LSD-like coloring.

This is awesome for everyone who deals with people and needs to make up for the chaotic reality. By evoking the brain we can give our ideas a foundation in science. Thus we design for left-brain and right-brain people, (ab-)use the fact that their brain makes them buy stuff they don’t need and ideally target their pleasure centers.

Sounds very scientific. But do these explanations help to predict outcomes and allows to criticize and to improve theories? They rarely live up to these expectations.

Replace with new question, answer none.

Often the sciency vocabulary replaces one question (»Why does the person do«) with another question »Why does the brain do…«. And though sometimes we get some more explanation (»Neurotransmitters do…«, »Center for… lights up«) these hardly give (the layperson) the insight to use the novel knowledge to predict behaviour any better than without the sciency terminology.

Generalize to the max

Many claims are based on misunderstandings or absurd generalizations. For example, yes, there is a lot of research about brain asymmetry, and yes, there are differences between the both sides of the brain. But the idea of one half of the brain being »creative« and the other being »analytic« is hardly based in research, not to mention the idea that such differences would turn you in a person binary defined by one of these.

Complications, Correlations and open questions

Research in Neuroscience is highly complicated and prone to many hard-to-control influences. Often, cited results have not been replicated (yet) and thus hardly provide a solid foundation. And despite of all the efforts and progress which was made despite the difficulties of research, there is still much to be explored. If you look in a textbook like »Principles of Neural Science« you will come across many open questions even in seemingly basic areas.

Rebranded psychology

And a lot of what is talked about »Neuro« or »Brain« is actually psychological research which (as a rule of thumb) measures response times and chosen answers or the like (instead of going to the physical level of the brain). In addition, the theories of cognitive psychology are often easier to understand and utilize. For example, cognitive load theory can help practitioners when creating teaching materials and provides an explanation why recognition is superior to recall; Prospect Theory helps to predict and understand decisions. While still being complex, they can be probably easier understood than much of neurological research and can be utilized in practice.

What do do?

I absolutely would love if we as designers could exchange more with (Neuro) Scientists and get insights into the inner workings of the brain. However, just using terms and theories from neuroscience without having the knowledge (or interest) in using it in the frame of a criticizable theory that can help us (as individuals) to predict and evaluate does not help us much and obscures the open questions with a veil of scientific terminology. Using corroborated and graspable theories from cognitive psychology probably enables you to understand and evaluate research itself and their predictions better and will often be far easier to transfer in your domain.


  • The Guardian’s take on Neuromarketing
  • Who is interested in neuroscience may enjoy the »Principles of Neural Science« by Kandel, a textbook classic on Neuroscience. If it hardly helps with designing or business. It helps a lot with learning about a very exciting field.
  • And on the left-brain/right-brain topic: Interview with a brain asymmetry researcher.