Daily Archives: July 13, 2008

The relationship between memory and imagination

New research from Washington University, as reported by Science Daily:

Psychologists have found that thought patterns used to recall the past and imagine the future are strikingly similar. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the brain at work, they have observed the same regions activated in a similar pattern whenever a person remembers an event from the past or imagines himself in a future situation. This challenges long-standing beliefs that thoughts about the future develop exclusively in the frontal lobe.


Do empathy and morality come naturally?

Science Daily reports:

Children between the ages of seven and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in children.

The responses on the scans were similar to those found in studies of adults. Researchers found that children, like adults, show responses to pain in the same areas of their brains. The research also found additional aspects of the brain activated in children, when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual. 

Adapting marketers’ habit formation techniques to public health


Dr. Curtis, now the director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, had spent years trying to persuade people in the developing world to wash their hands habitually with soap. Diseases and disorders caused by dirty hands — like diarrhea — kill a child somewhere in the world about every 15 seconds, and about half those deaths could be prevented with the regular use of soap, studies indicate.

But getting people into a soap habit, it turns out, is surprisingly hard.

To overcome this hurdle, Dr. Curtis called on three top consumer goods companies to find out how to sell hand-washing the same way they sell Speed Stick deodorant and Pringles potato chips.

She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.

“There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits,” Dr. Curtis said. “We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.”

Is the iPhone revolutionizing user interface design?

This NY Times article describes the impact of the iPhone and other small-form factor Web surfing devices on the design of Web interfaces:

A quick trip to Web sites like Facebook, Twitter, Zillow or Powerset, all of which have been redesigned to take advantage of the iPhone, makes it clear that bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to exploring cyberspace. By stripping down the Web site interface to the most basic functions, site designers can focus the user’s attention and offer relevant information without distractions.

It’s obvious that reading a Facebook newsfeed or looking up the value of a friend’s home on Zillow doesn’t require a 20-inch computer display. It may also make more sense to keep the grocery list, play a game or read an online newspaper while mobile.

Moreover, a new wave of applications from companies like eBay, Bank of America and America Online that are designed for the second-generation iPhone 3G, which went on sale Friday, will further blur the line between the Web and the iPhone. The eBay application is available as a free download from Apple’s new “app store,” which is part of its iTunes service, and allows users to track auctions, place bids and flip through images of items for sale.

“By having fewer items to scan for on a small display, users can find what they want more quickly and can be more confident that they have made the right choice,” said Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist who founded the Human-Computer Interaction Library at the University of Maryland. “If you just put the juicy stuff up there it works better.”

I will note that Shneiderman is a founding father of the user interface design community – I highly recommend his work, especially his book-length texts.