How the Brain Navigates an Interface

A four-principle guide to designing virtual learning and training environments.


Marcelo Manucci

3 years ago | 4 min read

The world has been virtualized by the pandemic. Much of our life is spent on a screen, shopping, birthdays, meeting friends, classes, intimate encounters, and so on. In this compulsive movement towards virtual spaces, classes at all educational levels are among the most affected environments because many educators had to move their content to an unfamiliar environment.

The result has not been entirely encouraging. Christine Nishiyama shows interesting results in her essay on Medium. It is true that we are in a critical situation. But with the extension of a new school year that in many countries is still online, there is a need for the intelligent design of virtual learning environments.

Peter DeWitt presents important data in an Education Week article on student fatigue in virtual classes.

Virtuality is a subjective experience of physical interaction; it arises from the emotional definition of the learning circumstances. Virtual territories are spaces that do not depend on the physical characteristics but on the emotional and symbolic conditions that people display dealing with specific contents.

The challenge in creating virtual learning environments involves moving from the transmission of information to the management of shared meanings and subjective realities that shape the experiences of these processes.

Four principles for designing virtual learning environments.

1. Create an Emotional Connection

An interface is not just a screen; it is a space of interaction that transcends the contact with a physical or technological structure. The interface is a symbolic field that emerges, with own significance, from the interaction between the pedagogical proposal and the subjective experience of these contents.

The emerging interface arises from the meeting of subjective realities. The interface is a dynamic and complex conceptual and emotional structure. In this sense, communication is not conceived as two poles, in the Sender and Receiver way. The participants not only interact with the formal contents but also with each other, generating parallel meanings and new realities.

2. Design to Engage the Brain

The body is totally involved in the interrelationship in virtual spaces. Three brain filters scan virtual design for specific indicators. Designing for the brain means deploying elements that the brain needs to perceive coherence, usability, and safety in that space.

The prefrontal cortex scans information. It regulates the relation between attention and emotion. This area is responsible for the cognitive evaluation of emotional signals in decisions.

Anterior cingulate cortex scans sensations. It integrates information from the body with information from the context, attention, and emotions, identifies inconsistencies between sensations and rational arguments.

Amygdala scans threats. It is a fundamental area in the definition of social emotions, trust, and fear because it identifies risks in the environment and activates defensive responses.

For the brain to engage with the experience

Make it clear. Provide accessible information, explain the objectives, define good practices, specify appropriate deadlines, use different types of texts.

Make it simple. Stimulate the senses, maintain visual consistency, design simple sequences, simplify contact, define progress cycles, reduce unnecessary data.

Make it reliable. Encourage participation, provide clear explanations, hold personal meetings, conduct activities, inspire new experiences, design support facilities.

3. Maintain the Learning Cycle

Information. This is the moment of the first contact with the resources. People define the emotional framework of the experience in this stage. Therefore, it is necessary to take care of the presentation of data, the coherence of texts, the articulation of sources, the diversity of resources (video, audio, text, web), and the technical quality of them (clarity, noise, readability, language).

Integration. At this stage, concepts take a particular shape for people. Personal feelings will arise (curiosity, enthusiasm, indifference, boring), as a result of the first experience of virtual space. At this moment, there are three levels of intervention: cognitive comprehension, emotional integration, and practical assimilation.

Application. This is the moment to implement the contents. In case of tools or procedures, it is time to practice. For conceptual definitions, it is time to associate, deepen, question. At this stage, it is necessary to sustain the people to consolidate the new that is emerging in the process. Without support, people may abandon the process; resistance to learning appears, or the discussion becomes tedious and time-consuming.

4. Expand Resources Within Flat Content

A simple text has a linear sequence. In virtual environments, it is possible to use flat content as a frame to link with other resources to generate a dynamic and participative experience.

Text. Link to other texts to expand details, contrast positions, and generate discussion. Use texts from different authors, texts in paper repositories (Academy, Researchgate, Mendeley), Magazines. Websites, Newspapers, ebooks.

Video. Link to online or self-produced audiovisual resources to exemplify concepts, broaden perspectives on certain topics, inform, introduce narrative messages (scenes from films or documentaries), listen to author or professional lectures.

Audio. Introduce audio in texts to extend the reflection to other personal moments, introduce a podcast channel, enrich skills (for example exercises, visualizations, coaching).

Image. Use visual content to explain concepts, show mechanisms, and sequences, illustrate ideas, to present emotional or entertaining content. Use graphics, 2D/3D illustrations, infographics, animations, and photographs.

Challenges. Use activities to put the concepts into action and make the students the protagonists of the application and reflection process. The challenges allow students to create, participate in collective tasks, design plans, solve situations, analyze concepts, and experiment in virtual laboratories. Use gamification techniques, interactive activities, simulations, tutorials, role-playing, and online multimedia panels.

Online activity can be an entertaining instance of personal enrichment and professional growth. Today, there are many resources available to expand learning possibilities and provide students with a positive emotional experience in virtual environments.

This article was originally published by Marcelo mannuci on medium.


Created by

Marcelo Manucci

Psychologist, Ph.D. in Communication and Master in Neuroscience. Author and postgraduate professor. Emotion researcher







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