Reprogramming the Amygdala

How to choreograph a public dance in the age of COVID

If you want to persuade anyone to do anything, there’s a part of the brain that you need to reach. It lives next to the Hippocampus and is named Amygdala in Latin because it is the equivalent size of an almond. It has the important role of processing memory and decision making, and is also where we generate habits. It’s the Amygdala where we become addicted to repetitive behaviour such as our morning coffees or the route we take to work. A lot of people don’t realise just how much the brain avoids having to think. It’s a great work of art with an ability to identify patterns and turn our behaviour into unthinking action in order to conserve energy and instead, focus on threats and opportunities. When we walk up to a door and see a handle we instinctively reach out to pull it without even having thought about it. Only when we realise the door needs pushing, not pulling, do we have to think. It takes a second or two for this to register and is often greeted with a displeasing grunt. Daniel Kahneman characterised this as ‘thinking fast’ and ‘thinking slow’.

Brands have realised this, and they spend an inordinate amount of money and effort to become a part of our habits. You hear brands talking about how buying decisions are ‘emotional’, not logical. I bought a Sony TV many years ago – they’ve always worked well and so whenever I have to buy something similar, I feel a leaning to the same brand. Weird right? No, just the Amygdala doing its job! It says to me “don’t look at everything else, you know Sony works so just get that and move on”.

The thing is, this is true about how we behave everywhere, and COVID has just changed the game. Our habits of travel, going to work, greeting people, not washing our hands all the time, and staying two metres apart just don’t exist, yet. The challenge for the whole world is only just dawning on us. If we are to live with this virus (which we will have to) and we want a functioning economy, then we need everyone to change their behaviour – and that means reprogramming the Amygdala.

As experts in wayfinding, designing systems that make complex places more legible, our job is behaviour change; to tackle and change the way people commute and explore – getting them to walk and cycle more, and to venture into new areas where they don’t think they can. We’re not starting from scratch, we know how this can work.

Legible London maps

Changing behaviour needs concentration. This is the only way to get someone to truly think and this is the only time you have a chance to reprogramme. Many people see our designs for Legible London as beautiful and they might not necessarily realise they are designed that way for a reason. With this project, we needed to engage the public – those who think they can’t use a map – and encourage them to use a map. To do this, we need to initially engage them with a map’s beauty and virtue. From the very beginning, the aim was to teach the public about the city; to learn it quicker and get them to realise just how easy it is to walk. Since the introduction of the system, walking has increased in London.

Legible London Walking Map

In dealing with COVID, we need people to concentrate. We are going through a global pandemic so we need guidance about how people should ideally behave so they can ‘dance’ without stepping on each other’s toes. To concentrate the mind, we need to use a formal public information language, which is not advice, but that is required. This has to be clear and unambiguous and it has to pass the ‘thinking fast’ test. It also has to be recognisable yet temporary.

COVID icon and symbols

From working across many cities, campuses and complex buildings, our practice often witnesses the limits of people’s perspectives. We are sight creatures and if we can’t see something, we can’t comprehend it which is why the climate change emergency is so hard for us to grasp. COVID is invisible, so how do we make it visible? We need to communicate how we want people to behave right at the point of action. We’ve proposed a COVID symbol that does a number of jobs making the purpose of the guidance clear. Research from Wuhan shows how door handles are a major source of transfer so the idea is to place these icons on surfaces that render the greatest danger.

How COVID icons can be applied to public transport surfaces

What fascinates me with previous challenges has been the complexity of aligning multiple organisations. When we designed Legible London, we found 36 different pedestrian systems in the city’s central area alone. These were recognised by only 2.7% of the public and 36 systems were a result of everyone looking after their own area. Where was the imagination? The area we should be coordinating is the range of peoples’ journeys. This is why we have one road sign system which takes us from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This is also the Amygdala kicking in – it has the desire to learn one system. Silicon Valley knows this only too well, that’s why we have such dominant singular social media platforms. Every organisation needs to work really hard to coordinate and do the same thing – religiously, everywhere. The unit for COVID could be the city, or city area – it’s about how far we are travelling. Ideally this should be a national system.

The challenge to develop a language that resonates with the public and to get many organisations to work together is not insignificant. How well we do this will have a direct impact on the R number, outbreaks, deaths and how well the economy and peoples’ jobs are affected. For London, it took us many years lobbying with a big idea to get everyone to work together. With COVID, we don’t have the time, we need to act now.

The silver lining: There is an opportunity that the behavioural change applied to COVID will stick. People have already told me they have bought a bike for the first time and cycled to work – they hadn’t realised how this was possible previously, and say “this has changed my life”. There you go – that’s the sound of the Amygdala being reprogrammed.

Tim Fendley is the founder & creative Director at Applied

Images courtesy of Applied