Frequently asked questions

How does this brain scanning work?


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases. The primary form of fMRI uses the blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) contrast, discovered by Seiji Ogawa. This is a type of specialized brain and body scan used to map neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans or other animals by imaging the change in blood flow (hemodynamic response) related to energy use by brain cells. Since the early 1990s, fMRI has come to dominate brain mapping research because it does not require people to undergo shots, surgery, or to ingest substances, or be exposed to ionising radiation, etc.
(source: Wikipedia)




How do you know the brain reacts in a positive way to looking at images, and it is not having just any reaction?


In this experiment, the brain evaluation of design journalist Marcus Fairs was measured to construct the Perfect Design. Marcus was shown pictures of different materials, shapes, objects, and colours while his brain activation was measured using a 3 Tesla MRI-scanner. Additionally, Marcus was presented with 20 pictures of designs he liked (‘positive designs’) and 20 pictures of designs he disliked (‘negative designs’). Using these valuation-stimuli, an ‘emotion mapper’ was created, which was used to compare the different design-stimuli to. A score for each design-stimulus was calculated as its neural similarity to the emotion mapper.
The emotion mapper was created by calculating the difference in average activation patterns for positive and negative designs. The results show robust networks for evaluation of the positive and negative design-stimuli. The network associated with positive designs clearly show activation in the bilateral nucleus accumbens – a key region in the brain’s reward circuitry – and the brain’s mentalizing network – including the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex – which may reflect engagement, interest, and reflective thinking. The network associated with negative designs notably shows activity in the brain’s salience network – including the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex – which may indicate increased arousal often associated with negative emotions.
To measure the brain valuation of the different design components, each component was compared to the emotion mapper in terms of activation. Conceptually, positive values indicate that the component is more similar to the positive network than the negative network, and vice versa.




Isn’t this done before?


No, it isn’t done before. Some people confuse my work with neuromarketing. It is true that fMRI scans are also used for neuromarketing, but in a completely different way than it is used for Your Brain_manufacturing. With neuromarketing companies use images of pre-developed prototypes and designs. These designs will be shown inside the scanner to target groups to see if they have a positive, or ‘most likely to buy’ reaction. The company will only develop the design that has the most potential based on the brain scans. The fMRI scanner in this case is used to control the prototypes.
With the Brain_manufacturing method there is no design hen using the scanner. De fMRI scanner is used as a design tool. The participants will make the design choices, subconsciously, while being in the scanner. The results from the scanner will give me the ingredients (shape, colour, material and object) that need to be used to create the jet to be designed perfect object. The Brain_manufacturing method is unique and the first to use these modern technologies and possibilities in this way.




Why did you scan Marcus Fairs?


For Your Brain_manufacturing I wanted to scan someone who is trained to make decisions about what he or she likes. Therefore, I wanted to work with a design journalist, as they work with taste and aesthetics on a daily basis and know how to describe their opinions. As Marcus Fairs expressed his interest in the previous project Brain_manufacturing he would be the perfect participate.




Why is the design ‘perfect’?


The design made is based on 4 main ingredients. Shape, colour, material and object. Using neuroscientific techniques and fMRI scans we were able to determine that the brain of Marcus fairs had the most positive reaction when he saw the colour orange, rounded shapes, plastics and chairs. My job as a designer was to combine these four ingredients. Using these design choices I’ve designed the object as clean and simple as possible. I have refrained from adding unnecessary design elements and details, so that the design is nothing else than a round, orange plastic chair.




Will you scan Marcus Fairs again to see how his brain reacts to seeing the final design?


If there would be funding avalible, it would be great to scan Marcus Fairs again. It would be very interesting to see what has happende after Fairs had lived with the chair and undergo an fMRI scan once more. Hopefully, one day it will be possible to have Fairs again in the scanner while looking at images of several, readymade designs, including the hyper-individualised design chair based on his brain activity. Than we can start to understand how his brain reacts to the final design with which he had lived with for several months.




What is the whole story behind Brain_manufacturing


Just like any other designer Merel Bekking wants to create the perfect the design. This is a huge challenge. To define ' the perfect design ' is already an impossible task. It is subject to taste, aesthetics, and many other feelings. In the present project Merel will exclude her own personal preferences and taste. Instead, she will design purely based on scientific research, using results obtained with an MRI scanner. In the design process product designers have to make a series of important choices. Three of these choices have the greatest impact on the final design; material, color and shape. Is it possible to create the formula for a perfect design by looking at brain activity of a group of people when they are presented these design choices? Neuroscience To answer this question, Merel Bekking contacted the Spinoza Center for Neuroimaging in Amsterdam. This project requires knowledge, technology and equipment that she does not possess as a designer. The Spinoza Center is an unique collaboration between the psychology and science department of the University of Amsterdam, Academic Medical Center Amsterdam, Vrije University and Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. The Spinoza Center matched Merel with Dr. Steven Scholte, associate professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), an expert in the field of visual perception and personality, and partner in Europe's first neuromarketing research and consulting firm Neurensics. They performed research using an MRI scanner to find out what people experience as beautiful and ugly, like or dislike, in materials, shapes and colors. An MRI scanner is a medical device that can be used to measure brain activation. This can be achieved by using functional MRI. This particular form of MRI records changes in blood flow in the brain of participants who for example are shown pictures. This results in a map of patterns of brain activation. Based on brain activation, scientists are able to register if a person likes or dislikes a particular image. An important advantage when using an MRI scanner is that the results you get are ‘pure’. The possibility exist that if you ask subjects directly about their preferences they will provide you with answers that can be socially desirable. By using MRI scanners you exclude this possibility. With this technique, the project looks for brain activity, which cannot be avoided. The brain is unable to lie. All the answers are unconsciously given.

Research
This procedure was used in human volunteers to find out what they find beautiful or ugly, focusing on the three main design choices. Merel Bekking, together with Dr. Scholte, developed a set of stimuli of 252 images. Subjects were put in an MRI scanner for an hour and where shown 5 different types of textures (wood, paper, plastic, steel, stone), 10 different colors, 8 different shapes (round, organic, square, rectangular, presented open or closed), and four types of paintings (violent, erotic, social activity’s, food). Brain activity was mapped for a group of 20 individuals by the Spinoza Center. The people participating in the study were between the age of 20 and 30, all received a higher education degree or are in the process of receiving one.

After the subjects were scanned the results were analyzed for the three design choices separately. Using different scientific models Dr. Scholte was able to create a list of likes and dislikes for these three main design choices. The list could be the key for the 'perfect design’, originated with the help of modern scientific techniques. This list of strong preferences will be used by Merel to create new products. The list will be used as a kind of ingredient list. Chairs, lamps, cabinets, everything can be designed on the basis of this research.

Innovative
Neuromarketing is becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon. Big companies make prototypes that they then test in a group of people in MRI scanners by showing them images of these prototypes. To our knowledge, MRI scanners are until now only usedas a control for already developed (digital) design. Merel uses the possibilities of MRI scanners in an innovative and novel way. With her project she wants to find out whether it is possible to use an MRI scanner in the stage before there is even a design. She wants to know whether it is possible to use the scanner as a design tool. Can designers develop new products based on neuroscientific research results?




What is the whole story behind Your Brain_manufacturing


What if you could create a design based on your inner most feelings by measuring your brain activity? Would you like it? How would you relate to it? These where the central questions for Your Brain_manufacturing, a research project by designer Merel Bekking.

In this project, Merel Bekking applied her established research and design method Brain_manufacturing to just one individual, Marcus Fairs. In 2015, Fairs, design journalist and founder of online design magazine Dezeen, spent an hour in a MRI scanner. This MRI scanner was used as a design tool to directly measure Fairs brain activity to determine what he likes, despite of what he says he likes. Interested in his subconscious preference for shapes, colours, materials and objects, Bekking was looking for his formula for perfection based on his brain activation.

In collaboration with neuroscientist dr. Steven Scholte and the Spinoza Centre for NeuroImaging, Bekking discovered that Marcus Fairs’ brain has a strong preference for orange, plastic, closed rounded shapes and chairs. Using these results, Bekking created a hyper-individual design. Interested to find out what happens if you have to live with an object that you like subconsciously, but consciously have other feelings about, Bekking placed the chair in Fairs living room. For four months Fairs was confronted with the chair on a daily basis. During this time Bekking observed how the relationship between Fairs and the chair developed.

Before knowing the results and receiving the chair, Marcus Fairs expressed his doubts about the project. He was sceptical about the research and said that he was anticipating he would hate the object. Even though he was interested to see what the outcome of the research was, he was not sure about how he felt about having to live with this object for several months.

Once confronted with the chair based on his subconscious preferences Fairs was happily surprised. Confused but optimistic he kept repeating: “I like it much more than I thought I would”. Even though still somewhat hesitant, his initial reaction was definitely a positive one. While at first, he was reluctant to live with something he didn’t choose himself, he was now asking about what could be arranged if he wanted to keep it. This proved that it is possible to design based on someone’s brain activation. It seems that your conscious preferences can be overwritten and you can be enthusiastic about objects that are made on your personal brain preference.

Four months later Bekking returned to Marcus Fairs to collect the chair. How did the bond between him and the chair develop? Upon arriving, Bekking discovered that things had turned for the worst. ”Just after you left it, I think I took a violent dislike to it” is the first thing Fairs told Bekking. He explained that even though he tried to like it, and he appreciated the idea behind it, he just couldn’t seem to find anything positive about it. The chair was never used and he felt it was quite an imposition to have to live with it. He would immediately clarify to visitors why he had this chair because he didn’t want people to think he chose it himself. After a while the chair just disappeared from his radar. While the chair was still there it was completely ignored. It didn’t exist anymore.

What happened? How could his feelings change so dramatically? How can you go from feeling very enthusiastic and joyful to having a violent dislike to something? Fairs’ sudden change of mind and his feelings of shame for the chair implies a more socially conscious side to the project. Our initial reaction to objects around us might be closer to our subconscious preferences, but we put a more conscious, socially aware, filter over it. It might not be conscious decision to do so, but it does affect the long-term relationships that we have with objects. With this research project, Bekking showed that over time it doesn’t matter that you live with something that is hyper-individual, scientifically based on your personal brain activation. If it doesn’t match what you think you like you can’t force a sentimental bond with things.

Can we create hyper-individual design objects based on an individual’s brain activation? Yes, you can use state-of-the-art science to determine what people subconsciously like, and create designs based on these results. And how would one relate to this? To that question there is no simple answer. Did we get any closer to finding out what perfection really is with Your Brain_manufacturing? Did Bekking crack the code? To quote Marcus Fairs: “Life isn’t that simple, is it?” Taste and preference are complex matters. After Brain_manufacturing and Your Brain_manufacturing we now know that what we like can’t be reduced to a simple formula, that would match your every need. It seems that what we like isn’t something that we truly believe or experience but that it is something that is socially constructed. That there are shared assumptions about beauty and preference and that we rationalize our opinions about design and objects by comparing them with the created models of the social world.





Contact

Tel: +31 61567 7687 (NL)

Email: merel@merelbekking.nl

Instagram: @merelbekking
LinkedIn: MerelBekking