Published on October 15th, 2014 | by Rahel Bailie0
How We Filter Information Online
The way our brain filters information has an effect on how we interpret user experiences online. Understanding how and why filtering happens contributes to a better user experience and helps us develop better content.
How people tune in and tune out of information is a little like listening to the radio at different frequencies. Information is carried on top of gamma waves, just like songs are carried by radio waves. These “carrier waves” transmit information from one brain region to another. Researchers found that there are slow gamma waves and fast gamma waves coming from different brain areas, just like radio stations transmit on different frequencies.
Researcher Laura Colgin, from the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, explains, “You know how when you feel like you really connect with someone, you say you are on the same wavelength? When brain cells want to connect with each other, they synchronize their activity. The cells literally tune into the wavelength of the other.” They investigated how gamma waves in particular were involved in communication across cell groups in the hippocampus.
But until recently, no one really knew why the frequency of the gamma waves differed so much from one region to another and from one moment to the next. It seems that it is a frequency issue. Cell cannot “listen” to both frequencies at the same time. It is similar to listening to a radio between two station’s frequencies – though each station is transmitting clearly, all you can hear is noise. The cells use the slow and fast waves to tune in to a “clear” frequency.
Marc Van Rymenant writes about the three aspects of the brain: the reptilian brain, the emotional brain, and the logical brain, and how they work together to analyse online information. An interesting fact is that the emotional brain does the filtering; this was a key part of preventing a hunter from being the hunted. This part of the brain scans the visual landscape, amplifying what is interesting, and suppressing what isn’t. This is an adaptive process intended to help the logical brain to what the author refers to as the “good options” – information needed to analyse the information further, in order to make sense of it and take action.
Evidently, there is a school of thought that advocates online experiences designed to isolate each of these aspects of the brain. However, creating competition between the emotional and the logical brain with actually be a worse experience, as these two sides of the brain work together in a complementary way.
Knowing what we do about filtering, it makes sense to take that into consideration when we design our content and the interfaces that support it. Readers will filter information they deem unnecessary. Early on, interfaces were designed with top banners that held messages important to the organizations but unimportant to the content consumers. Readers developed “banner blindness”.
To circumvent banner blindness, that information was moved into the right-hand column. But again, because the information was still extraneous to readers, they began to develop right-rail blindness. As part of the filtering process, users adopt a cognitive schema, a mental framework that helps organize user expectations. On the one hand, it helps users set expectations, and understand “how things work” – in other words, what to do when encountering similar situations and environments. On the other hand, it means we also gloss over potentially useful information because we’ve learned to filter it out. Designing new places to display content, to put “noise” in front of users isn’t helpful; they will change frequencies to tune out whatever they deem to be extraneous. A better use of real estate would be to deliver personalised content that would be welcomed and generate interest.