Brain chemistry is the totality of all the messaging system that chemically occurs in our brain. It allows our brain to carry out the usual functions such as moving, speaking, listening, thinking, and it regulates our emotions.
The quickest way to change brain chemistry is using chemicals. Psychiatrists specialize in changing the brain chemistry by introducing medications into the system in order to treat neurochemical imbalances.
For visual design to change brain chemistry, it must first be converted into something that can directly affect the brain. Visual design comes into the body through the eyes as light then turns into optical signals that is interpreted in the brain. The interpretations come in a form of electrical signatures that have certain associations with the stored informational and emotional memories in the brain.
A study was conducted to demonstrate the neural effects of visual art was done by Anne Bolwerk and her associates at Beijing Normal University. They observed that exposure to visual art production lead to the development of a functional connectivity that is related to the ability to resist stress. Another study revealed that art therapy is effective in dealing with stress, however it’s not a strong enough remedy for the more serious post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Dr. Candace Pert, emotions regulate what we perceive, remember and learn. Perceiving, remembering and learning are basically chemical interactions of peptides and receptors in the brain. The brain uses our emotions to then filter our perception to create our “reality”. Therefore, strictly speaking, our brain chemistry and reality are always changing—albeit in minute quantities—every single time we experience emotions caused by various stimuli including visual design.
There are strategies that visual artists and graphic designers use in an attempt to elicit emotional and cerebral responses from viewers:
A recent study from the University of Missouri-Columbia revealed that consumers attributed colors to have specific personality traits. For example, green may invoke an environmental memory, yellow might mean fun and purple might remind us femininity depending on your life’s experiences.
Adrian Bejan, a professor at Duke University, believes that a design with the golden ratio is aesthetically pleasing to look at because our eyes are the fastest to interpret an image that resembles patterns found in nature; it is reasonable to say that our brains are hardwired to see designs that emulate nature to be beautiful.
Although certain individual color schemes attribute to certain emotions and the golden ratio proportions stimulate our aesthetic senses, they do not necessarily command a strong emotional connection for the viewer. This strong emotional connection only happens when the overall composition of the design taps into the cultural and sociological references of the viewer.
What is a design strategy that’s apparent and perceivable enough to change beliefs, thought patterns, attitudes and behaviors without direct ingestion of psychiatric medication? The answer: The most aggressive approach to change in brain chemistry may be found in a placebo design.
If placebo helped Bruno Klopfer cure cancer using only distilled water, then changing brain chemistry by viewing visual design will be no problem at all. According to a study conducted by the University of Turin Medical School about how placebos change a patient’s brain, the placebo is an effect that comes from a psychosocial context—words and rituals may change the brain chemistry and circuitry.
For visual design to change brain chemistry drastically as with the case of psychiatric drugs, it has to at least conjure up a placebo effect on the viewer. It must target the viewer in a psychosocial context. It has to be symbolic or laden with associations of Pavlovian conditioning. Dr. Ivan Pavlov’s groundbreaking work revealed that a dog will respond to neutral stimuli, such as a bell, in the same way that it will respond to, say, mouth-watering food because the dog is conditioned to react when it hears the bell and sees the food. In the same way, repetitive visual design can condition humans to react in a certain way and associate our emotions with an image that’s disconnected from the real experiences.
In other words, if a visual appearance or sound (ringing bell) indicates that really good and important things will follow, then the visual indication or sound of the ring itself becomes the really good and important thing in our life.
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
-Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong and American philosopher, filmmaker, and martial artist
There’s design advice to be gained from Dr. Ivan Pavlov’s observations: visual design can change brain chemistry and shape reality for as long as it creates a strong emotional and psychosocial connection between the viewer and their personal experiences.
National flags are an examples of symbolic visual design. National flags, especially in a time of war, rouse nationalism and patriotism among heroes and changed their brain chemistry to associate the flag with a sense of pride, or in some cases the flag is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. The actual design of national flags doesn’t really mean anything until meanings of psychosocial significance were attached to them.