Writing is an exhausting process for me. I love reading,
thinking about things, taking notes on paper, drawing diagrams and outlines.
But when it comes to sitting down at the computer to write, words start
colliding in my head and a sense of dread verging on terror creeps in. Ideas
that seemed so clear before become seven-headed medusas. When there are so many
ways to say one thing, which is the better one? I think and rethink a phrase
until it dissolves into a cacophony of echoes.
I was trying to write a paper the other day when I noticed
the lights shining faintly underneath some of the icons positioned on the Mac
taskbar. I couldn’t believe that I
hadn’t noticed these lights ever before. They’re subtle, but present to the
‘trained eye’, indicators that tell the user which applications are in use.
There is a setting on my laptop that adjusts the brightness of the screen based
on the intensity of the ambient light. On the day in question, the weather was
constantly changing. Moments of
strong sunlight alternated with cloudy shadows. The screen was struggling to
keep up and I only noticed the faintly glowing icons because the changes in the
lighting made them flicker slightly. It was quite beautiful, a bit like seeing fireflies at dusk during summer. It made me look differently at my computer –
more tenderly, if you will, and some of that feeling transferred to the task of
writing being mediated by the computer. Whenever I got stuck, I would look at
the lights on the taskbar and start to feel a bit better.
Three levels of
emotion (visceral, behavioral, reflective)
On D. Norman’s view, emotion can be the outcome of
processing at any of the three levels of the brain: visceral (encompassing
basic automatic response mechanisms necessary for survival); behavioral (consisting of response mechanisms based on a more sophisticated analysis,
though still unconscious); and reflective (conscious thought) (Norman, 2003,
ch.1). Visceral emotion is a general feeling of well- or ill-being affecting
the neuro-motor system, a feeling of being relaxed, at ease, in a pleasurable
physical state, or aroused and tense. At this level, emotion is generated by
perceptual stimuli. At the behavioral level, emotions with a similar
phenomenology are generated by (and directed at) more complex actions: here, we
have the stresses or pleasures of doing.
Reflective emotion is emotion generated by conscious reflection on perceptions
and actions. The three types of
emotions exist in a dynamic interplay: situations that generate negative affect
at the visceral level can have the opposite effect at the behavioral or
reflective level (why else would the personal trainer shout “feel the burn!” as
encouragement?); and the reverse: pleasurable sensations at the visceral level
can generate negative reflective emotions (guilt, for example).
Norman’s theory of emotions helps explain the experimental
finding that attractive things work better. Things that produce positive
visceral emotions put their users in a relaxed, happy state; this state makes
the user’s interaction with those things more smooth and successful. If the
interaction runs into problems, the happy, relaxed users will be more likely to
problem-solve creatively, ultimately achieving their goal without frustration.
In the following analysis, I will discuss how my interaction
with the computer has changed for the better as a result of the aesthetic
enjoyment afforded by the glowing taskbar icons.
When I’m trying to write, my emotions are negative at all
three levels. At the behavioral level, there is the negative emotion of
unsuccessful action, of trying and failing to do something. At the reflective
level, the predominant emotions are those of self-criticism, disappointment in
oneself, and envy of people who don’t seem to have similar troubles. At the
visceral level there is anxiety, partly induced by the activity at the
reflective level; also, a generalized feeling of ill-being generated by the
effort required to sustain focus and by the physical discomfort of sitting on a
chair and staring at a screen for long periods of time.
None of these negative emotions can be directly attributed
to the malfunctioning of the computer. But the computer – or, more precisely,
the text-processing software - enters the equation as the tool for the action
that is the emotions’ source, and as such it will shoulder part of the blame
for the action’s failure. There is a natural tendency to think that better
tools will improve the outcome of our actions. In my own case, the performance
of the computer/word software was not in any objective way changed, and yet
there was a subtle shift in the way I perceived my tool that ultimately made it
The softly glowing lights on the taskbar are a source of
aesthetic pleasure, both visceral and reflective. The attributes I use to refer
to them explain their impact at the visceral level. In context, the pleasure they afforded entailed a change of
state, from tense and inefficiently hyper-focused to more relaxed and open.
Once I released my grip, more room was made for inspiration. Norman discusses
at length how automatic positive affect enables creativity and reduces the
“tunnel vision” that can have negative effects on problem solving (Norman,
2003, ch.1), and my experience is in line with his findings.
The emotions at the reflective level are more complex. The
visual similarity with fireflies brings back pleasant memories of summer
evenings in the park. The critic in me admires the tastefulness and subtlety of
the graphics. I also feel a slight discomfort as I wonder why I haven’t noticed
these lights before. I continue to
deplore my tendency to get stuck, but now with relief and gratitude for being
out of the hole. I’m reminded that I don’t have to be stiff and I don’t have to
hate writing. Out of this comes a renewed appreciation for my machine: it’s not
really the fault of the computer that my fingers are not flying all over the
keyboard. My computer can do neat things; who knows how it will surprise me next? Sometimes getting excited about
the tool also makes you excited about the activity for which the tool is
D. (2003). Chapter 2: The Multiple Faces of Emotion and Design. Basic Books. In
Emotional Design (pp.17-60). New York: