Brain-Computer Interfaces and Ice Age Squirrels — An Interview With Sarv Taherian
We’re sharing the stories of people who help make Propellerhead tick. In this edition, we interview our Accessibility Advisor Sarv Taherian. Sarv helps our teams, and our wider company, learn more about creating accessible software users love.
So Sarv, where did you grow up?
I was born in Iran, 10 weeks premature. My mum had a very stressful pregnancy with the war happening, and I had tried to self-abort twice, unsuccessfully.
My dad came to NZ on a business trip in the 80s and fell in love with the country — before that we were set to go to the US. Thank goodness that never happened! We moved here when I was 4 years old — mum, dad and older sister.
I grew up in Glenfield, Auckland. I spent most of my childhood exploring our native bushes, and it’s still a massive source of happiness for me.
What’s your background?
I was always a strange, clumsy kid, lost in my own world and often walking into things and completing tasks in unusual ways. I’ve never really grown out of these.
Turns out I’m neurodiverse, which is a common thing amongst us premature kids. I have ADD, the inattentive side of the spectrum (as opposed to the hyperactive), and being a day-dreamer is a “symptom”, and dyspraxia, which used to be called “clumsy child syndrome”!
I think because of the different ways in which my brain and body operate, and the prevalence of mental illness in my family, I was drawn to the field of psychology and studied it for 10 years. I initially wanted to be a clinical health psychologist, but by the time it came to my clinical year, I had doubts over my ability as a therapist. I was young, immature, and had very little life experience.
This led me to a gap year, where I co-founded a startup Thought-Wired, which catapulted me into the tech world. Thought-Wired builds a non-invasive universal brain-computer interface (BCI). This interface enables anyone to intuitively interact with any device using their mind.
I never went back to finish my clinical training, and instead did a PhD on the technical and psychosocial elements of developing brain-computer interfaces (spurred by the product we wanted to build in Thought-Wired). I left my start-up in December 2019, after 8 years of blood, sweat, and tears.
While I was studying I also taught health psychology and research methods at the University of Auckland, and worked on a variety of research projects around disability and health (with universities, government, and not-for-profits).
I’m always really interested in understanding why we think and behave in certain ways, but also the wider societal and systemic variables that affect how we live, think and perceive things.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working with a few awesome organisations: Accessibility Advisor and a few other things at Propellerhead (YAY!), service design and codesign at Ara Manawa (ADHBs design studio), digital humans and conversational AI at Spark 64: AI agency (although that’s just finished up!). My current interests are around decolonising design and reimagining accessibility.
I recently wrote an article on Decolonising Software Design — check it out.
For Propellerhead specifically, I am working on establishing our approach to understanding user needs for software development, so we can create delightful, inclusive and ethical experiences for our clients and their clients. This is a wonderful opportunity to think about how we can create something better for humanity. So much of our lives are entwined with the digital realm, and being thoughtful about how we design these experiences and systems has the potential to change peoples lives.
What do you like about working with us?
People here are curious, open-minded and want to learn new and better ways of doing things. It’s a really encouraging and energizing environment (even when we’re virtual and remote atm). I also love that I am trusted to establish my roles and responsibilities, with feedback from the team. People here are generous with their time, and thoughtful and kind with their interactions.
What’s your focus for the next few months and years? What do you want to be working on?
Whatever I work on, I hope that it is meaningful and impactful. It’s hard to measure these objectively and in such a short period of time.
What’s your media consumption or interaction like?
- I love podcasts, in particular: Invisibillia, Radiolab, Story Collider, Ologies, Stuff to Blow Your Mind, 99% Invisible, Freakonomics and The Moth.
- Spotify is where I go to for music — their algorithms know me too well.
- Blogs: Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Farnam Street, Brain Pickings.
- Videos: The School of Life and VSauce channels on YouTube.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your day?
Waking up early to watch the sunrise or walking to work.
What about the least enjoyable?
The afternoon slump, it’s so hard to push through the brain fog and be productive.
Okay, if you had to be shipwrecked on a deserted island, but all your human needs — such as food and water — were taken care of, what two items would you want to have with you?
My husband and my phone, both come with infinite connection, communication and knowledge.
What was the last gift you gave someone?
I bought some delicious french cakes for my friend who’s recently had a baby.
I better ask the hobby question — what are they?
Music, doodling, gardening, getting lost in nature… I’m quite boring to be honest!
If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?
If you could compare yourself with any animal, which would it be and why?
This is sadly really easy. Everyone says my looks and personality are identical to Scrat from Ice Age (including my love for nuts and seeds haha).