Can User Experience Cause Brain Damage?

What exactly are you studying when you conduct your user research? Many User Experience, and accessibility, professionals talk about conducting usability studies. However, more often than not, the descriptions of their work reveal that all they’re really doing is performing accessibility tests. They’re asking users to execute tasks with the purpose of determining whether or not the website, application, or other digital product meets their functional needs. No one, it seems, other than Helix Opportunity, considers the long term, neuroplasticity effects that design has on the users of products, environments, and services.

In short, your design can either enhance the neural connections in the brain, or decrease them. In effect, you may be technically causing brain damage. The human brain continuously reorganizes its neural connections all throughout our adult life, even giving birth to new neurons (stem cells) that can take on any form that our daily environment indicates as necessary. This is neuroplasticity, in the basic sense.

Stress has negative effects on the hippocampus region of the brain that influence its primary functions such as memory and learning. The hippocampus is critical to important types of memory of time and space, and conscious working memory. The hippocampus is the center for memory that is consciously recalled such as facts and specific verbal learning. This is called either declarative or explicit memory. Declarative refers to memory that can be “declared” in words. Explicit is the type of memory that is recalled with effort, what we think of as “a memory”.

Stress causes a decrease in volume in the hippocampus. It causes atrophy of neurons, while also blocking the generation of newly minted neurons for memory. Research reveals that stress even kills healthy brain cells. The hippocampus is one of the regions where stem cells make new neurons every day of our lives (around 700 per day) that incorporate themselves in the circuits related to new memories and remodeling of memory. This process is reduced with stress.

The more often a user has a stressful experience using your digital property, the more atrophy they will experience in this region of the brain. Consider the frequency of use for social media sites/apps facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. and we’re talking major long term damage here.

In the short term, for those less frequently used digital properties, you end up becoming nothing more than just a fleeting memory to your users because the stress you induce every time they encounter you…

Keep this in mind the next time you conduct a usability study. This is why our work, at Helix Opportunity, is driven by neuroscience and social psychology.

Please contact Helix Opportunity if you’re interested in learning more about this exciting field of neuroplasticity, and how you can improve your design of any digital property to increase user cognition, motivation, and focus, reduce stress, and treat a multitude of disorders like depression, OCD PTSD, even addiction.

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