Limit the Strength of Amygdala Activation
Are you wearing a watch? If you do I bet it is round-faced. If you don’t, just look around and the first watch you’ll see is very likely to be round-faced. It’s not that squared-faced watches don’t exist, they do. But they are far less popular.
Most of us have the tendency to favour curved objects over objects with sharp edges or points. This phenomenon is called ‘contour bias’ and it is present everywhere without us noticing – like the watch example. Research has shown that when we look at objects with sharp angles, a specific region in the brain gets activated. This region, the amygdala (also called the lizard brain), is involved in fear processing. It is the most primitive region of our brain and unconsciously processes sharp objects as a potential threat. Moreover, the degree of angularity of the object is direct related with the degree of amygdala activation and inversely related with the preference of the object.
But there is a catch. This phenomenon is only relevant for emotional neutral objects. You can imagine that an axe has already many negative associations and a teddy bear many positive ones. These pre-existing associations will act as confounding biases. However, for neutral objects, the contour bias can act in our advantage and is a relevant influencer of the overall perception of the design.
You can immediately apply this knowledge in the design of scientific figures. Many of us use simple shapes to illustrate cellular pathways for example. Instead of using squares and triangles, try rounded boxes, circles and ovals. You would be surprised how much better your message gets across with this little tweak. The look and feel of your diagram will be perceived and associated with positive emotions.
Additionally, use sharp-edged shapes and pointy objects specifically to emphasise negative features, to attract attention and to provoke thought. When the amygdala gets activated the level of processing is much deeper and the activation stronger in comparison with the processing of rounded shapes.
You might have seen the launch of the apple watch last week. It is no coincidence that it has rounded corners. That’s on purpose. Rounded objects make a positive first impression. Make sure to do the same with your next figure for publication.
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