Brain Science behind Flow

Brain Science

What's the hippocampus got to do with it?

Sierra Dawson sat down with Flow CEO Jason Marsh to talk about how brain science has influenced the product development.



You're always talking about brain science. Could tell me a little bit more about how you incorporated brain science into Flow?


Sure, let me start by just saying, I'm not a brain scientist, I'm not a neurologist. I've just read a lot on the subject and had a lot of good conversations with some experts.

When you think about, say, PowerPoint, which is the main way people are communicating in enterprise today, it just violates so many of the principles of brain science.

Let's just throw some terms around. There's this little organ in our brain called the hippocampus that has two really important functions. First, it gives us our spatial awareness, which helps us put ourselves into a 3D model of the world. And second, it helps regulate our memory. It turns out that those are both really important things if you're trying to communicate a message. Similar to mice, our mammalian brains are really good at building a mental model of the world and remembering how to navigate through it. That's how mice get their food. It's how they, you know, survive, right? Why are we, as humans, not communicating in a spatial way?

Unfortunately, so much of our symbolic information, like PowerPoint, is done on flat screens. I guess on some level, we've been using flat screens ever since cave walls, and then papyrus, and books, and now screens. All of that flatness is fighting with the way the hippocampus wants to work. Say you take some image and put it onto a PowerPoint slide, and then when you advance, it disappears. You pull up another slide and it happens again. Each time it disappears, the hippocampus asks, where do they go? I don't know what to do with that visual. It's exhausting your brain. You go and sit at a conference, just viewing PowerPoint after PowerPoint after PowerPoint. Then the next day after you get home: can you remember any of it? No. It just completely disappears, right?

That is exactly what Flow is trying to solve with the way we approach brain science. By actually putting your content into 3D space, and even if you're seeing it on a flat screen, as long as it's moving, you still get the sense of its 3D-ness. Unlike PowerPoint, we don't like steps that just take your prior visual and have it disappear, and then go to another visual. We want to animate a single data set from perspective to perspective: by turning it around and seeing it from a different angle, by putting it onto a globe, by bringing it into 3D scatterplots and categorized charts.

Let's talk about animation too, and the underlying principle that each point is a thing. Each dot is, say, a survey, or a human life, and you're seeing these concrete things move from place to place. It's a very different expression of the information compared with just looking at a bar chart.

By solving fundamental problems with PowerPoint and the way our brains build mental models, and by keeping things in 3D, you're building relationship upon relationship of the information. Now your brain has somewhere to file it, and the hippocampus is going to let you remember it. In an enterprise use case, in public policy, and in almost every use case, if you can get your audience to remember what you're talking about- that is gold. That's pretty nice.

The hippocampus also helps us govern our memories with things like emotional trauma, which gets burned into our brains in a really powerful way. If you beat up your audience, that's another way you can get them to remember you, but that's not really practical. If we can take advantage of the spatial aspects of the way the hippocampus works, well, that's a way that we can use brain science to help our audiences remember.


You mentioned you could speak in more detail about animation. I'd love to hear it.


The way we present information is with dots instead of rectangles because in a bar chart, every time you look at a rectangle your brain has to figure out how to give it meaning. And again, slide after slide, that's tiring. But if you start a presentation by saying "Hey, each dot is a person, or a survey result, or a tree." You move those from arrangement to arrangement, then your brain keeps that thread all the way through. But it's only going to keep that thread if the dot stays on screen and animates from one position to another.

The way we built the animations is kind of subtle. If we had one set of dots and they all instantaneously jumped to a new spot, your brain is going to see it explode and then reincorporate into a new form. In contrast, if you move one dot to its new position and then another dot, and another dot, and if you've got 1,000's of dots, well, those dots are going to have to move really fast, too fast for your eyes to catch. The way we do it, here at Flow, is called ripple animation. How it works: we take a set of dots, we start rippling them to their new position, and then another set of dots, and they all kind of ripple into place. When they do that, your eye can follow them much easier. But it also provides a really nice little dopamine rush, and I'll describe that a bit further.

When our brain expects the world to be a certain way, for example, if we see a ball drop, and then it lands or it bounces, it does what it's supposed to do, and that's actually a satisfying thing. It's a satisfying thing to see somebody, strike the ball in baseball, right? It has to do with our expectation and the resolution that occurs. When it comes to Flow, once you start to move the dots, people can start to see the new shape take place. And then as it finishes, it's that same feeling, it just feels good. We don't want you as the Flow author to have to think about these brain science principles and animations. We've encoded these ideas into the software so it's just the way it works.


Nice. That's a nice bonus you get, and you don't even have to work for it.


Exactly, that dopamine rush is free! Just get your data in there and your audiences will be happy!


See Animations for more details on how animations work in the Flow Editor.