Master's Thesis: F I V E +
Products of Design MFA student Cassandra Michel’s thesis titled “Five +: An exploration of mindful experience through the lens of sense,” started as a question of happiness and how happiness is achieved. Cassandra began by conducting research and came across the philosophy of Mathieu Richard who proposes that happiness is a skill that is cultivated. However, early in her research Cassandra came across a 2010 Harvard research study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert which discovered that humans have a unique ability for mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is the ability to think about the past and the future. Mind-wandering can also lead to unhappiness. In the book Buddha’s Brain Neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson writes, “Our vastly more developed brain is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer.”
Further research uncovered that mind-wandering in the form of distraction is only exasperated by the digital age. In Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock he coins the term digiphrenia. He describes that by dividing our attention between our digital devices we sacrifice the present moment. Cassandra speculated that in this age of distraction we might need a digital device to solve the problems created by these technologies. This paradox is exemplified in a speculative object she designed as part of her early exploration. It is a pendant necklace that transforms an analogue stethoscope into a digital device. It tunes out digital distractions allowing the users to tune in with themselves.
Cassandra reflected on the issues of mind wandering, worrying, and unhappy thoughts and realized how intangible these concepts are. She thought it might be helpful to make the the issue tangible and physical in a simple way and imagined the problem as a tiny critter that lives in the mind and causes havoc. She brought this critter to like in a stop motion video. In the movie, the main character, Tim, is constantly distracted by his critter until one day he comes across a service called The Critter Cleansing and Cognitive Capacity Cultivation Company (C5Co) that introduces him to mindfulness and meditation techniques.
Cassandra’s research taught her that the 2500 year old practice of mindfulness is a method for cultivating attention and curbing the innate potential for becoming easily distracted. Cassandra also learned that neuroscience is now proving that meditation practice can change the structure of the brain. According to Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brown University, “The neuroscientific principle of experience-dependent neuroplasticity is one of the most important paradigm shifts in modern science and medicine. Rather than being fixed entities unchangeable traits and behaviors, our brains and psychological tendencies are actually quite malleable, and can change with both experience and practice. Just as exercise and training strengthens physical muscles, mental habits construct and become entrenched in corresponding brain networks.”
Cassandra conducted further research into how senses shape our experiences and therefore our neural networks and brain. In the essay “The Desert of the Real,” by John Thackara, Cassandra came across the work of philosopher and education reformer, KB Jinan who proposes that there are two types of people: text cognites and sense cognites. Jinan believes that children are sense cognites and navigate the world primarily through the senses. This direct relationship with the senses allows for an authentic human experience. Jinan hypothesizes that adults need to reconnect with their own senses and use them as the primary way of understanding the world.
Following this discussion, Cassandra conducted a research experiment where she asked participants to meditate on their individual senses such as molding clay, smelling teas, tasting fruit, and framing specific views. What she found was that the techniques that were active over passive were more successful. Following this research she designed another experiment that was active and integrated the sense of sight and sound. Participants were asked to choose a sound related to a memory. They then sprinkled charcoal over a set of a speakers and watched as the sounds created a visual pattern. Cassandra took elements of her experiments further by integrating them into a sensorial and meditative group dinner. She built a unique dinner table with ten embedded speakers, replaced charcoal with spices, and asked guests to submit recorded stories of their memories. Dinner guests were blindfolded and asked to participate in a guided meditation on the sound, smell, textures, and color of the spices. They then sprinkled the spices on the table and when the sounds of their memory played the spices danced across the table creating a moment of surprise and delight.
Finally, Cassandra conducted research into how environment can have an effect on the brain. According to neuroimmunologist, Esther Sternberg in the book Healing Spaces “ When people view scenes that are universally preferred-- a beautiful vista, a sunset, a grove of trees--the nerve cells in that opiate -rich pathway become active. It is as if when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your own brain gives you a morphone high!” In an interview with Sternberg she writes about he celtic cultural term of thin places. Thin places are locales where the space between heaven and earth is thinner. Cassandra asked herself how might she design a service that helped people find these unique locales.
As a final work, Cassandra designed a concept for a digital service. Thinpoint is a a mobile app that encourages urban dwellers to go outside into nature and green spaces. The app provides users a way to pinpoint, archive, and share the thin points. Because these unique places are made up of sights, sounds, smells, and textures thinpoint allows users to search for them via their senses. For example they can search for the smell of eucalyptus or the sounds of crickets. When arriving in a thinpoint users can choose to save the spot. Their phone will then sit in silence by turning off notifications. It will also automatically capture a time-lapse of the view along with other important data. Finally, users can choose to share the thinpoint or keep it a secret.
A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind
A 2010 Harvard Research Study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert discovers that Mind-wandering leads to unhappiness.
Map: Mindwandering to Unhappiness
Tune In Pendant Necklace
A speculative object that exemplifies the paradox of creating digital devices that attempt to solve the problem of digital distraction. The Tune-In Pendant Necklace enables us to tune out digital distractions and tune in with ourselves.
Definition of The Principle of Experience Dependent Neuroplasticity
The Critter Cleansing and Cognitive Capacity Cultivation Company
A speculative service that proposes to clean your "critters." Critters are a physical embodiment of worried and distracted thoughts that can lead to stress and unhappiness.
A critter is the embodiment of the distracting, worrying, and negative thoughts that are a result of mind-wandering.
Participants were asked to visualize their thoughts/worries/stress as a form using clay. This provided a helpful metaphor, a conduit for conversation about difficult topics, and provided the sense of touch as a focal point for meditation.
According to to philosopher KB Jinan, adults need to reconnect with their senses in order to have an authentic human experience.
Reconnecting with the senses via nature.
FIVE: A sensory experment
Participants are asked to meditate on individual senses.
Listen + Look
An experience design that asks users to choose the sound of an emotion, sprinkle charcoal over a set of speakers and watch as the charcoal powder creates a visual pattern.
Sight + Sound Experiment
FIVE Dinner Experience
Invites stressed out NYers to slow down and meditate on the senses.
A unique dinner table that plays sounds during a meal.
FIVE Dinner Table
A prototype of a unique dinner table that plays the sounds of memories during a sensorial and meditative dinner experience.
Environment Shapes Cognition
From John Thackara's essay "Desert of the Real."
The science of place
Places can having healing properties. A study in hospitals found that patients with a view of nature heal faster than those without.
Thinpoint User Journey