How to Work with the Innately Faulty: The Human Brain in Cultural Institutions

Alanah Lam
Feb 6, 2019 · 3 min read
Image Credit: Padraig Birch

Ah, the brain. That wrinkly pink thing that can’t make up its mind and the source of your weekly existential crisis. It’s you, in all of your brilliance and irrationality. It’s evolutionarily the best brain out there. So why exactly is it faulty?

The brain uses biochemical energy to function. And like any other organ, its energy sources are depleted over time, especially in effortful, demanding contexts that require the exertion of attention and other executive functions such as working memory, emotional regulation, and information processing. In other words, our cognitive and emotional abilities are limited by the number of cognitive resources we have to work with.

Image Credit: Padraig Birch

To work around our innately limited abilities, humans have evolved heuristic thinking. Characterized by fast, intuitive, automatic thinking, heuristic thinking allows us to form accurate insights from minimal pieces of information called thin slices. Thin slices help us navigate our social worlds. And as shown in interviews and first dates, those first impressions create high confidence predictions about a person’s future performance or behaviour.

In the past, noticing the brief rattle of leaves in the bush beside us would have been a matter of life or death. Not only has this type of thinking allowed us to best our predators and propagate our genes, but studies have shown that heuristic thinking can help us gauge the personality traits of others and evaluate a teacher’s performance just by watching thin slices of video footage.

But what does heuristic thinking have to do with cultural institutions? Activities that involve heuristic thinking are the least cognitively expensive. Going by that same virtue, effortful non-heuristic thinking is more cognitively expensive, where the cost is determined by the number of cognitive resources an activity requires. Exhibits that use more visitor-friendly intuitive design decrease the number of cognitive resources required to perform an activity, contributes to a better visitor experience and protects against the dreaded museum fatigue, which is the burnout that occurs when cognitive demands exceed cognitive resources.

Clean UI not only looks good, but helps visitors navigate and engage with exhibits. Intuitive, visitor-friendly design helped shape the Build an Airplane exhibit in the Flight Gallery at the Halifax Discovery Centre. Photo Credit: NGX Interactive.

Almost every activity in a cultural institution will be effortful, as visitors will likely be seeing exhibits for the first time, therefore they’ll be actively trying to understand, process, and learn new information. Museum spaces can also be heavily saturated, meaning the effort exerted is magnified, which can predispose visitors to museum fatigue through information overload. Although the rate of fatigue differs depending on the individual, fatigue can occur as early as 30 minutes into a museum visit, where the remaining time in the visit will be dedicated to merely cruising through the museum space.

So how do we minimize cognitive expenses without sparing the richness of content, and maximize the use of heuristic thinking to accommodate for a tired brain? By using user interface practices that maximize simplicity, usability, functionality, and intuitiveness.

UI is especially important in complex exhibits. The Urban Ecosystem experience at the Montreal Biosphere presents rich content to visitors using a simple and intuitive interface. Photo Credit: NGX Interactive.

Similarly, we craft experiences that focus on memorable narratives rather than a plethora of content. Rather than stuffing a textbook into a touch table, we structure stories through progressive disclosure and compelling visuals that entice visitors to delve deeper based on their own interests, making for personalized learning journeys that are intrinsically motivated and inherently meaningful.

The use of good UI is critical in creating seamless augmented experiences that merge the virtual with the real. The Augmented Reality experience at Craigdarroch Castle frames the rich history of the castle around compelling story experiences. Video credit: NGX Interactive.

Before an experience can be meaningful, it must be functionally accessible. Clean design that is easily navigated means less energy is dedicated to figuring out how to do an activity, so more energy can be left to enjoy it.

— Alanah Lam, Junior Producer

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We partner with clients to reimagine what’s possible in physical and digital spaces. Focused on people and fuelled by collaboration, we activate storytelling, art, and technology to inspire and engage.

Alanah Lam

Written by

student of psychology + business, avid overthinker, generation burnout advocate

ngx Interactive

We partner with clients to reimagine what’s possible in physical and digital spaces. Focused on people and fuelled by collaboration, we activate storytelling, art, and technology to inspire and engage.