So yesterday was the first day of my final year at the Royal College of Art, where I’m completing my Masters on Design Products. We were asked to present our Statements of Intent; what we propose to research for creating our final project, the project that will be exhibited in late Spring as the feature of our graduating show. I will be keeping a record of the projects ups, downs and sideways movements here over the next year.
Here is the presentation of my Statement of Intent.
Since the 1950’s technology has revolutionised the way we live our everyday lives. We can send and receive information anywhere instantly, we can travel the globe, we have automated dangerous and repetitive jobs so, theoretically, humans no longer have to do them. We can listen to an full orchestra in an office cubicle, we have entertainment systems which can take us to far off galaxies and put us in the centre of fantastic narratives, we can see the faces of our loved ones with the click of a button.
However, despite all these and many hundreds or thousands more inventions, subjective well being levels have not increased in the West since the 1950s. I think this is an absolutely staggering fact, one that shows our priorities when creating new design. Technology has made us faster, more connected and absolutely more productive. These things are important of course, production drives the economy, the economy drives technology, and this effective feedback loop goes round and round, and for now we don’t have a better method to keep developing the technologies we need to solve the huge problems we face. However one thing technology does not do, once it has helped us meet our basic needs, is make us happier.
In fact by 2030 depression may become the greatest global disease burden, ahead of heart disease and diabetes. I want to focus on what else technology can, and perhaps should, be doing for us.
One of my favourite design periods is the psychedelic work of the 60/70s. Groups like Haus Rucker build machines to induce shamanic trances and expand human consciousness.
Scientist John. C. Lilly tried to communicate with dolphins, and invented the isolation tank, from which he claimed to make contact with creators from different dimensions.
Whilst many of the items remained purely conceptual objects that did not, in fact, do what they proposed, the are indicative of a utopic vision of what technology could do for humans. Whilst I don’t share all their utopic visions, I certainly nurture optimistic ones, about how technology could be used, not just to make us faster and more productive, but also to make us happier, more conscious and truly connected to each other and our environment.
Things have changed since the 1960s. The technological advances I spoke of earlier have also driven forward out knowledge of the human brain, and even the nature of consciousness itself. We still have plenty of questions, but our understanding of how the brain works, and what depressed, addicted and anxious brains look like, have absolutely advanced.
For me this is also a personal journey. This is a picture of me when I was 14, when my mild manic depression caused a small, but to me significant, mental break down, and I was prescribed anti-depressants for 6 months.
The journey from that time to now has been a difficult and wonderfully fascinating one. I have found it was possible for me to re-train and re-design my mind to be a calmer, happier and more creative individual.
A big part of this journey is my relationship with Japan and Japanese philosophy, and this has taken me into my current fascination with the potential benefits of meditation.
This time last year I retuned from two years living and working in Japan, I went out to investigate several research topics, not least of which was meditation.
Whilst out there I wanted to try and get a taste for as many different forms of meditation as possible, I tried Gongyo, Zen and Tea Ceremony, among others, and whilst some were more useful to me then others, I absolutely fell in love with meditation as a tool for making me a happier, calmer and more creative human.
We all the ability right now to change the world with just our thoughts. We are constantly creating and strengthening synapses in our brain as we learn, think and live, physically changing the shape of the world inside our minds.
Recent research has found that brains look different before and after meditation, with different regions of synapses being stimulated. Over time this process can permanently change the shape of your brain.
Studies have been preformed on both inexperienced test subjects, and dedicated meditators. There have been fascinating collaborations between Buddhist monks and scientific institutions, the resulting findings are staggering, the monks had, through a life times dedication to meditation, changed the mental configuration of their own brains, with different brainwave patterns and ‘abilities’ of cranial use.
This productive partnership is indicative of a fascinating shift in attitudes. Traditionally in the West Science and Spiritually are seen as two opposing forces, I think we live in an exciting time where is some places a common ground is being formed, with a more holistic and non-dogmatic approach the scientific enquiry.
One of my favourite books from this year was Yuval Noah Hararis Homo Deus, where he discusses several potential futures for our species. In it he proposes that we are becoming, or have even become, Gods. If we were to go back to an ancient hunter gatherer with even a few modern toys, they could be easily forgiven for assuming we must be so. To me this idea poses another question…
If we are becoming Gods, what kind of Gods do we want to be? Destructive? or creative and protective?
I, and others, believe that meditation may be one possible path to a species wide shift in perception. Where latest scientific theories work in harmony with some of our most ancient philosophies, that state that we are not, as we often appear or feel to be, solitary individuals pitted against each other and our environment. Rather we are unique and complex instances of energy in a vast and possibly incomprehensible network, originating from, and ultimately returning to, a marvellous cosmic source. As members of this web, sustainability in our designed environment is not a buzzword or a marketing technique, but rather a selfish and urgent protection of our very selves.
Ok, whoa there, this kind of talk isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. It’s possible to very practically discuss the benefits of meditation, let’s put it in context in one example environment, say the office.
By 2050 it’s predicted that half the jobs currently preformed by humans will be potentially possible to replace with a machine. This means that to be a valuable human worker, your uniquely human assets, the thing that we don’t think robots will be able to do with-in the next 50 years, become even more precious. Let’s have a look at those assets in the work place.
Firstly empathy, the ability to understand and imagine what another human is going through, this is important for working well with your co-workers, and also for predicting your clients needs, a better understanding of your clients needs results in better sales. Those who engage in even a small quantity of meditation have been found to be more empathetic and compassionate then those that don’t.
Creativity, the ability to combine two of more seemingly unrelated things into a totally new idea. Creativity in crucial in solving problems in every industry. People have been shown to be at their most creative when in a calm and medative state.
Flexible learning, or creative learning, the impetus to go out and learn new skills, whether someone has told you to or not. As technological development races faster and faster, workers are constantly having to learn new skills to meet and compete in an increasingly automated environment. Learning and memory have been shown to be improved by regular meditation.
So in a nutshell I want to help create design technology to make happier humans, these happier humans will be better workers, and I also hope better consumers, designers and leaders.
To start with I wanted to see what such technology already existed on the market, I was surprised to find that actually quite a lot was already out there, it’s a tricky area with plenty of sudo-science to be very cautious of, but let’s have a quick look at some of the claims.
tDCs applies a small current to your scalp and claims to be able to reduce pain and relax the body.
PEMT works by non-intrusive electromagnetic pulses, different frequencies are claimed to induce different cognitive states, like focus or sleep.
GLT is different to my other examples, as it does not directly interface with the brain, but rather works by a light that flashes at a specific frequency. It has been seen in a study conducted on mice, that the therapy may reduce the risk of toxic beta amyloid proteins in the brain, and some claim that it may also enhance the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals. Interestingly the frequency is so fast that it’s almost imperceptible, it seems like a normal steady light.
Finally the one that I am most interested in, EEG Mirrors. These are used not to stimulate the cranium but rather to help people gain a better understanding of what their brains are already doing.
In the same way a Fitbit gives its users feedback on their body during different periods of activity, and helps them to figure out better training routines, an EEG Mirror can help a meditator fine tune and improve their practise by allowing them to understand the process more clearly. Particularly useful for understanding, and so being able to enter into, a meditative state known a ‘flow’, a mental state where you are so immersed in an experience that time and space and self no longer disrupt the present moment.
For me to create a successful design I will need to find many collaborators. Firstly I am interested to learn more about the current products on the market by talking to some of the companies involved.
Also I am looking forward to building a family of meditators, both experienced and new, to gain a deeper understanding of what brings an individual to the point of trying and also continuing with the practise. I will be talking with founders and runners of meditation studios in London to lean more about how these communities and businesses work in the urban landscape.
Lastly, and most importantly, to ensure I produce a design that is a working piece of technology, not science-fiction, I must find a neuroscientist(s) to work closely with.
On Friday I was lucky enough to speak with Judson Brewer over Skype, a leader in the field of mindfulness research and EEG Mirrors who is the director of the Centre for Mindfulness at MIT. They are currently working on a clinical iteration of the EEG Mirror and it may be that I am able to align and collaborate my work with them. I first came across Judson Brewer in an interesting book called Siddharthas Brain by James Kingsland. In it Judson discussed the idea of ‘brain gyms’ where spaces and technology that help you work on your mental health could become as ubiquitous as the treadmill, an idea that I find very inspiring.
All in all I am pretty excited to get the project truly started, and can’t wait to see where the research takes me.