folder Filed in Design, Mind
Genes, Silos & Gollum
Joseph C Lawrence

It’s just so much easier to imagine that we are all neat individuals, that have consistent personality traits, motivations and desires, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to pitch ideas to clients, and rationalise designs and solutions when we all buy into the illusion of the rock solid self inside all of us.

Well, alas, being a good designer – being good at understanding people – is not about simply accepting the illusions that come naturally. Nor is it about accepting traditional thinking simply because it is traditional. It is about taking out a hammer and testing every concept, and every now and then shattering some of those illusions.

This story starts with our genes (well…my version of the story at least, and I’m going to use the term ‘gene’ a little loosely, to refer to meaningful bits of replicating genetic material – sorry biologists!). You have probably heard terms like ‘survival of the fittest’, or ‘survival of the species’. The whole idea of Darwinian evolution – adaptation by Natural Selection – is often slightly misunderstood. It is not individual people, animals and plants that Natural Selection acts upon, and it is not species either. It is our genes.

Our genes battle it out for their position in our DNA, and it is our genes that replicate themselves if they are successful, and get passed on to the next generation. If you want to be really brave, you can even think of us humans really as just elaborate vehicles, created by these coalitions of genes simply to help them get replicated!

So how do these genes go about their task? Well, they each contribute a little something that eventually gets expressed in the real world, when combined with all the other genes they interact with, and the environment they find themselves in. This little something will either help or hinder the survival and reproduction of the organism they find themselves in. Some genes contribute towards physical attributes like muscle density, or nerve sensitivity. Other genes contribute towards instinctive behaviours, like quickly moving the head when it looks like something is about to hit it. Some genes form parts of beautifully complex coalitions of genes that all contribute to the unfathomable complexity of the human brain, and all the magic of our lives that results from it.

But still each gene is really just out there for itself. Sure, it will be friendly with other neighbour genes if it is better off that way, and of course since most of the genes that have an impact on an individual animal’s survival and ability to reproduce sit inside the same animal’s body, it usually does pay to be friendly! But not always, and not necessarily.

There are a million interesting scenarios that can evolve, but I want to just briefly get you thinking about what this means for the human mind.

We now know a decent amount about the brain. We know for example, that there seem to be areas of the brain dedicated to certain tasks (e.g. face recognition). We also know that there are certain ways the brain can work, that are usually dedicated to certain tasks. All of these different parts of the brain that seem to come hardwired, and different hardwired ways of working the brain has, are determined of course largely by our genes. Now it seems from what we know, that if we look at our cognitive abilities – our abilities to perceive and make sense of the world through our senses, our abilities to reason, and think, memorise and problem solve – they are in many ways like the departments of a big corporation. Each is responsible for a fairly specific task, and each draws and feeds information from and to specific other departments. Just like in a big corporation, amazing things can get done, and some of the teams are so specialised that it’s almost unbelievable how good they are at what they do. But also, just like in a big corporation, sometimes some departments have no idea of what’s going on in other departments…they hardly talk at all. Also, sometimes different departments might have different ways of solving the same problem, and they both go after it at the same time. Sometimes one solves a certain kind of problem, and sometimes the other another department does. This is like having silos in a big company, that prevent the free and easy sharing of information.

And the result? Well, do you remember Gollum, from Lord of The Rings? A caricature of a conflicted personality, with two distinct voices, each motivated by different goals, and skilled in different behaviours. In many ways, this is just how we are! Our experience of ourselves (and of others) is usually of these consistent, harmonious selves but that is largely an illusion. Of course as individuals we tend to behave the same in similar situations over time, but my point is that in our minds, we are often conflicted. We have a gut urge that a YouTube video is fake, but we don’t know why because as far as we can see, it looks real. We can’t stop looking as someone does something that makes us so embarrassed we feel we shouldn’t be watching. We look at a poem but can’t tell if there’s a rhythm until we speak it softly out loud, allowing a different part of our brain to work it out. Why doesn’t the part of our brain that detects a fakeness to the YouTube video just communicate to the bits that think it looks real? Why doesn’t the part of our brain that wants to turn away from embarrassment just disable the part that wants to keep looking? Why can’t the part of our brain that can detect rhythm in language just work it out when we look at the words without saying them to ourselves? Different departments, all doing what they do amazingly well, but often doing it with amazing isolation.

Of course there are many ways in which our cognitive systems do share information with each other – this is a large part of how we are such masters at these lives we lead, but it certainly is not like the illusion we all pretend is real. To produce truly great design – to make things that work intuitively and flawlessly we need to learn more about these internal conflicts and inconsistencies. Most of all though, we need to be gentle and empathetic with ourselves. We need to design things that understand that if we need XYZ information in cognitive system A, then don’t present it in such a way that it is processed more readily by cognitive system B. This is why learning about the different parts of the human mind is so important. The more you know something, the more you understand it, the better of a friend you can be to it. And I like that analogy – good designers are the best friends of the mind.