Cognitive Enhancement Through Headspace and Its User Interface

One of the ways we achieve optimization is through cognitive enhancement. The purpose of optimization is to promote cognitive function and longevity. How do we achieve optimization? Through biochemical ingestibles, physical wearables, or behavioral programs. I want to focus on behavioral programs because of the role that meditation plays in many lives.

Meditation is a mindfulness-based way to reduce stress. I have watched my friends and myself reap the benefits of meditation over the past year and a half by using an app called Headspace. Not only do I enjoy Headspace because of its cognitive enhancement tools, but also because its user interface is aesthetically pleasing.

These are just a few of the libraries Headspace offers its users.

In terms of cognitive enhancement benefits, Headspace has been a critical part of my life. My friend introduced me to it when I was very stressed. He started using it himself when he found himself facing difficult times. It turned him around and helped his mental health immensely, so of course, he suggested it. The important part of meditation is that it really needs to become a habit in order to work its magic. You have to buy into its benefits and trust that it will work if you put in the effort. For a while, I used it every day. However, I eventually found myself pushing it to the side when life got busy and overwhelming. I did not think I had the time to put towards Headspace. The issue was that I had to find a way to have time because it was good for me.

A view of Headspace’s sleep page.

Additionally, Headspace’s interface is very user-friendly and makes me want to spend time browsing. I often get stuck browsing all of its beautifully designed options and libraries. Its color scheme is light, yet colorful with fun animated characters. There is now also a sleep page on the app that has meditations dedicated to helping users wind down and fall asleep at night. The design and color scheme are perfect for nighttime too. The designers made this app beautifully for users. When I open Headspace, I am immediately intrigued, relaxed, and excited to explore all of the lovely options available.

Headspace also provides users with a page that tracks stats and progress.
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Using Common Sense to Design for Usability

Usability seems like a pretty simple concept. It is how easy interfaces are to use and also refers to the methods for improving how easy the interface is to use. However, so many people struggle to create usable interfaces or interfaces that users can interact with easily. All users want to do is use common sense to navigate interfaces. Why have we moved from simple devices that are easy to use and understand to complicated screens that take time and effort to navigate?

Utility is an important concept to understand in order to design useful products.

It seems fairly simple – just use common sense! Usability focuses on how easy and pleasant features are to use. How would you use the interface sitting in front of you if you were seeing it for the first time? Our minds often make us desire to create beautiful, yet complex interfaces because we think it looks nice. It is important to note that the design we think looks nice is not always nice for the user who is trying to figure out how it works.

Human-Computer Interaction consists of many factors, a key factor being Human Factors Engineering.

Human-computer interaction is the reason we create usable interface and interaction designs. The keyword – human. How easily can humans learn to use the interface? How efficiently can they perform tasks on the screen? How well do they remember how to use it? Are they pleased with the design? These are all important questions that satisfy the usability aspect of interfaces and build the platform for good interaction.

We must know whether or not users can actually use a product correctly when given it for the first time.

We need to break it down and consider simple design concepts. We are designed for the user, not based on how nice we think the design is. You’d think simple design is common sense, but it’s not. That is where the importance of usability testing comes in. It is critical to test users to see how someone with fresh eyes interacts with the interface. The purpose of usability testing is to bring to light any issues that users may encounter. Usability tests typically occur throughout the entire design process in order to ensure that the design is the best it can possibly be before finalizing it. While we may all think we know what users want to see, it is clear that usability testing is necessary to dissolve any issues that users may encounter.

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Why Do We Refuse to Use Optimal Learning Strategies?

Learning strategies. We’ve all learned about them in some sort of psychology class. Our professors have showed us the facts over and over and over. The learning strategies lecture is our professors’ way of screaming at us to use these strategies. They lay it all out for us, point blank. There’s no way around the fact that the learning strategies will help us get better grades. So why do we still refuse to implement these strategies into our repertoire?

The way we typically study versus the way we should study.

When my professor in my Introduction to Psychology course laid out all of the wonderful facts about spaced practice and retrieval practice, I was amazed. It was my first semester at Tufts, and I thought that right then and there I had discovered the key to acing Tufts. However, my mindset changed quite quickly. The reason I was never able to implement these learning strategies was time constraints.

As life catches up to you, it becomes clear that you may fall behind in certain areas. While the intention is to spend 15 to 30 minutes per day reviewing your lecture notes from that day, it is not always attainable. You know that studies show that students who study spaced out over time perform better on exams than students who study just a few days before the exam. However, the time you would have spent reviewing is the time you are spending writing your paper due the next morning.

A student cramming for an exam is often very stressed.

Kornell and Bjork surveyed 500 college students in 2007. Results showed that nearly 60 percent of all students reported studying whatever was due soonest when asked how they decide what to study next. Although evidence shows the effectiveness of learning strategies, it does not guarantee that all students who follow these strategies will get an A in all of their classes. The most important part of these strategies is that they promote learning, rather than simply cramming to perform well on exams and then forgetting all of the information the next day.

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The Complexities of Decision Making

I struggle with making decisions, no matter the importance of the decision. If you ask any of my family members or friends, they will confirm that I simply cannot make decisions, whether it is the type of food I feel like eating that night or what I want to do with the rest of my life. When we learned about decision making in class, I thought it would be a good idea for me to consider why decision making is so difficult for myself and many others.

There are many different factors that lead us in different directions, making it difficult to make a decision.

The first aspect that I considered was how we make decisions. We first set or revise goals, make plans, gather information, structure the decision, and lastly make a final selection. Heuristics play a major role in decision making when we do not have the time or resources to go through the process of how we make decisions. Heuristics are simple and efficient mental shortcuts that often lead to errors because their strategies only work under some conditions.

People use descriptive decision making most often because it accounts for how people actually make decisions compared to normative decision making, which calculates the mathematical optimal choice in order to make the correct decision. When I reflect on my own ability (or inability) to make decisions, descriptive decision making stands out. There is no mathematical model telling me what the best choice is for myself, my happiness, or my career, for example.

The decision is just a minor part of the entire decision-making process.

According to the Harvard Business Review, research shows that people typically make about 2,000 decisions every waking hour. There are certain things to look out for when having to make an important decision – some of these are decision fatigue, emotions, and analysis paralysis.

Decision fatigue is when the proper ability to make decisions decreases when it is repeatedly occurring. This is something that would be useful for me to keep in mind because I often find myself stressed when I prolong decision making, which likely leads my ability to make the best decision astray.

Emotions are also a critical, if not the most significant, part of decision making. We may act on feelings of anger, sadness, joy, or excitement and make important decisions based on what we feel at that exact moment. Personally, I might benefit from using my emotions to help me make decisions so that I can feel those emotions again. I tend to exclude how I feel about something in the moment so that I make decisions that are not solely emotion-based.

It is important to balance both your head and your heart during the decision-making process.

Analysis paralysis is the most relevant issue for me. We have access to endless amounts of information that aids us in the decision making process. More information results in more time to make decisions. This often hinders my decision-making abilities because I feel the need to consider all the information possible so I can make the best, most informed decision. However, this is where emotions factor in. It is not good to only consider factual information. It is extremely important to consider how I will feel about making the decision and how acting on my decision will affect me.

Decision-making is difficult for everyone at some point or another. It is important that we consider how the decision will shape ourselves, our relationships, and our feelings in the future. Considering the advantages and disadvantages that affect good and bad decision-making is a significant aspect of our cognitive abilities. 


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Devices that Improve Sleep Quality

While various forms of technology are known to negatively affect sleep quality, certain gadgets actually act as a sleep aid. It is widely known that spending time on one’s phone or computer before bed results in poorer sleep quality. However, so many different types of technologies exist now that there are devices that help facilitate sleep. Let’s talk about some of these devices.

White noise machines are quite common nowadays. There are people who even claim that they cannot sleep without the sound. White noise machines mask disrupting sounds that may prevent people from sleeping, such as noise from loud roommates or the noise from a radiator.

Smartwatches are common forms of sleep trackers.

Sleep trackers are another common form of technology that is used to indirectly help people sleep better. They commonly record sleep duration, sleep quality, sleep phases, environmental factors, and lifestyle factors. Not all sleep trackers have all of these components, but generally, these are the measures that sleep trackers record. Sleep trackers do not directly improve sleep quality; the purpose is instead to help identify patterns in sleep habits.

Bose Noise-Masking Sleepbuds

Believe it or not, earplugs are also a form of technology! They are most useful for light sleepers or those who live in noisy areas, such as cities. My college roommate even used them on nights when I had to wake up early so that she could get the best sleep possible. Waking up due to noises is a major source of poor sleep quality because it impacts phases of deep sleep. Bose released Noise-Masking Sleepbuds, which are gaining popularity.

The Circle Home Plus.

 The final (and coolest) device I found is the Circle Home Plus. This device connects to an app that allows parents to set controls on various features, such as those pictured in the image below. It monitors technology usage and ensures that devices will not impact sleep quality by disconnecting to the Internet at scheduled times.

Premium features that the Circle Home Plus offers.

In conclusion, not all technology is bad for sleep. Devices that emit blue light, such as smartphones and computers, are the devices that negatively impact sleep quality and quantity. Research the benefits of other technologies to help yourself regain a good night’s sleep!


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Distracted versus Drunk Driving

You hear the phrase “drunk driving” and then you hear the phrase “distracted driving”. Your brain automatically condemns “drunk driving” and most likely brushes “distracted driving” aside. Compared to “drunk driving”, “distracted driving” seems like nothing. 

Let’s reconsider that common misconception.

A graphic comparing distracted and drunk driving.

A study conducted using a driving simulator at Tufts observed a group of undistracted drivers, a group of distracted drivers, and a group of intoxicated drivers (BAC = .08) in a car-following paradigm. The drivers followed a lead car that braked randomly, which required timely reactions.

What do you think the results showed? Most would typically assume that drunk drivers performed worse than distracted drivers. However, distracted drivers displayed slower response times than intoxicated drivers. Interestingly, these drivers tried to compensate for being distracted by increasing their following distance but still experienced more rear-end accidents than intoxicated drivers.

Notably, drivers are hopefully likely to be more cautious on the road than in a driving simulator. It is important to note the extent to which technology distracts drivers on the road. Technology of various types is distracting in different ways. Talking on the phone, texting, and the use of in-vehicle technology have all proven to be major and dangerous distractions. 

Reading or sending that one quick text is much more dangerous than you would think.

We often think that hands-free technology use in vehicles is safe. While it is much safer than non-hands-free technology, it still comes with risks because of the cognitive load that is going into the task. Another study looked at drivers in a speech-to-text condition. Results showed that drivers braked even slower in this condition than in the cell phone condition. Additionally, they scanned less at intersections and reported a higher level of mental workload than other conditions.

It can always wait, especially if it means saving lives.

Unfortunately, we have been convinced that technology does not take much away from our ability to successfully and safely complete tasks. More research is necessary, but these findings exhibit the pressing nature of these studies and conversations. Hopefully, we can find a way to implement technology in a way that ensures safety.

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Sleep – a Superpower and a Lifestyle

At the beginning of class last week, Professor Ward claimed that the 19-minute long TED Talk we were about to watch would be the most important video about sleep that we would ever see. The most important video on sleep ever? Well, that surely caught my attention. So, for 19 whole minutes, I watched with open ears and an open mind.

Matt Walker’s TED Talk, “Sleep is your superpower” truly convinced me that sleep is, in fact, the path that leads us to our greatest abilities – our “superpowers”. I immediately left class and told my friends about this TED Talk that they absolutely must watch. I know and love some people who battle insomnia and others who are simply sleep-deprived college students. This video made me think twice about the nights I stay up late when I know I should go to sleep to get around 8 hours of sleep.

Matt Walker giving his TED Talk “Sleep is your superpower”.

It was no surprise to learn about Walker’s results from his sleep study. The sleep-deprived group performed much worse than the sleep group on the test. Most people know, understand, and trust that you are not able to perform nearly as well without sleep. The best part about this video for me was learning about how lack of sleep affects the immune system.

Our immune systems produce natural killer cells that identify and eliminate dangerous, unwanted things in our bodies. Tumors are an example of the things that natural killer cells work to eliminate. The critical part is that our bodies lose natural killer cells when we do not sleep enough. Walker’s study showed a 70% decrease in natural killer cell activity in the sleep-deprived condition. He also states that lack of sleep causes cancer. This is an immense claim but makes sense considering the decrease in natural killer cells without sleep.

Don’t forget about the importance of sleep!

I knew that sleep was critical to leading a healthy and successful lifestyle, but I did not know that a lack of sleep was as detrimental as it is. This TED Talk made me reconsider the extent to which I prioritize sleep and my sleeping habits. I feel very strongly that this is the most important video on sleep and will integrate what I learned from Walker’s TED Talk into my life.

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Multitasking in the Workplace

The impact multitasking has on the workplace was one of the most beneficial discussions held thus far in class. Being part of a generation that uses technology daily and relies heavily on the ability to multitask means that we must be wise so that we do not let technology and multitasking negatively affect productivity and performance at work.

If only we had eight arms with which we could multitask. Unfortunately, we only have two arms and one brain with which to focus.

In terms of knowledge workers – white-collar workers whose line of work requires one to think – multitasking has the potential to be both a major pro and con. Commonly known examples of careers as a knowledge worker include computer scientists, engineers, accountants, and data analysts. Knowledge workers are constantly learning and often interact with others, whether they are superiors or students. For this reason, knowledge workers are at high risk of multitasking in the workplace.

Multitasking in the workplace often includes switching between projects and subtasks within projects. For example, employees often check their email during the day which could alter their train of thought, focus, or actions. Receiving an important email or phone call may interrupt another important task and make it difficult for workers to refocus on the task on which they were previously working.

Kushev and Dunn’s 2015 study is notable because of the positive effects that mitigating email checks in the workplace had on employees. In this study, 124 adults were randomly assigned to limited email checks to only 3 times per day for 1 week. Other weeks, these adults could check their email whenever they wanted and had an “unlimited” amount of email checks. This study is significant because participants reported feeling less stressed on a daily basis during limited email check week compared to unlimited email check week.

A similar study conducted by Akbar in 2019 studied 63 participants in an office environment. Findings showed that participants’ stress level was directly related to the amount of time they spent checking their email. Thus, participants’ stress levels increased when they spent more time on their email accounts.

The main piece of advice to multitask successfully is usually not to do it!

I found these two studies notable because of the impact that multitasking and forms of interruptions had in my life in the workplace. After learning about these studies, specifically the effects of email, I reflected on my own experience in the workplace. I thought about how stressed I was when I arrived at work to find ten emails and when I received emails that assigned me a new task to complete when I was already in the middle of one or two other assignments. More emails made me feel like there was more pressure to complete my tasks quickly when the assignment was usually not time-sensitive.

Decreasing the number of email checks per day in the workplace also decreases stress levels!

We commonly multitask by checking our email during the day but have become immune to the disruption they often cause. The direct relationship between the number of email checks and stress levels shows that multitasking increases our stress level in the workplace. It is important to remember that focus is key to completing a task efficiently and to the best of our ability. High performance is based on the ability to channel our energy in order to focus on a task. We are meant to complete tasks one at a time so that the result reflects our best work and effort.

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Interruptions Don’t Really Affect Me, Do They?

The concept of internal and external interruptions captured my attention in class. The most interesting part to me was that we recorded the number of times we experienced an internal or external interruption during class. This exercise made me consider the extent to which interruptions affect my experience as a student.

Realistically, life as a millennial includes receiving continuous notifications and constantly checking cell phones. It has undoubtedly become a habit and a part of daily life. We do not typically differentiate between internal and external interruptions because they are so common for our generation considering how much we use technology. However, they are extremely relevant.

Interruptions are related to the idea of multitasking, or task switching. Internal interruptions are self-generated, whereas external sources generate external interruptions. Internal interruptions cause you to stop an ongoing task before finishing it in order to direct your attention to a different task. An example of an internal interruption is remembering that you need to go to the grocery store while you are in the middle of an important task at work. Examples of external interruptions are receiving a phone call or text message while taking notes during class, or the noise from the construction taking place outside of your dorm room waking you up well before your alarm.

Interruptions truly inhibit our productivity and efficiency.

My interest in these topics during class led me to look into other applications of internal and external interruptions. Research led me to a study called “Effects of external and internal interruptions on boredom at work” written by Cynthia Fisher. We briefly discussed the effects of interruptions and distractions, such as cell phones, at work, so I was excited to read about a study that connected these two concepts.

Fisher conducted two studies that she wrote about in this article. Study 1 focused on external interruptions, while Study 2 focused on internal interruptions. Fisher claims that there are different types of external interruptions. One is a passing, irrelevant external interruption which quickly ends and is forgotten about. The second type is one that continues to prompt non-task-related thoughts after the initial interruption ends. This type of external interruption occurs and results in a series of internal interruptions to continue. Study 1 compared three conditions: no-interruption control condition, external concern-irrelevant interruption condition, and an external concern-relevant interruption condition (Fisher, 1998).

Study 2 looked at ratings of boredom, satisfaction with the work itself, and overall job satisfaction. Fisher predicted that people who reported more boredom and lower job satisfaction would experience more non-task-related thoughts.

Findings from Study 1 showed that external interruptions decreased boredom on a simple task that required minimal attention. However, they did not affect reactions to a simple task that required attention or a complex task. Findings from Study 2 showed that employees who reported greater boredom and less satisfaction experienced more interruptions from non-task-related thoughts during work (Fisher, 1998).

Interruptions in the workplace come in various forms, such as phone calls, meetings, and assignments.

This study showed the relevance of interruptions in our daily lives, specifically in the workplace. When I did not have an assignment and experienced downtime during my internship, I was often bored and found a way for interruptions to have more of a presence in my life than they would if I were busy. I plan to be mindful of the correlation between interruptions and perceived boredom in the future as a student, intern, and employee.

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Instagram’s Algorithm

As we discussed Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms during class this week, I started thinking about the social media platforms and websites I use the most and which ones have the ability to suck me in for what seems like forever. The first example I thought of was Instagram’s Explore page because I use Instagram more than any other social media platform.

I find it fairly easy to get lost exploring Instagram, whether I am looking at new posts from the people I follow or old posts from people I just started following. When I am bored of people’s posts and have some extra time that I am able to spend exploring Instagram, I check out my Explore page.

Instagram’s Explore page displays content that is tailored to the user based on its algorithm which uses your behaviors to determine what you like to look at while you are on Instagram. The algorithm considers the accounts you follow, posts you like, and Instagram stories you view. Additionally, the algorithm even considers the posts that people you follow like, related hashtags on photos you like, and posts from accounts similar to those you follow.

An example of a generic Instagram Explore page.

In class, we discussed the positive and negative uses of algorithms. An example of a positive algorithm use is Amazon Book Box and an example of negative algorithm use is that Target’s algorithm sent coupons home to a girl based on purchases and revealed her pregnancy to her father. I see the Instagram explore page as a positive algorithm. It effectively and positively contributes to users’ experiences with the app by providing them with suggestions in the form of posts that they otherwise would likely not have discovered.

Here is a screenshot of my very own Instagram Explore page!

Above, I included a screenshot of what my own Instagram Explore page looks like. Clearly, I am a fan of foodie posts on Instagram. The algorithm used the posts I have bookmarked to determine the types of pictures I want to see. My bookmarked photos are almost entirely food-related because I tend to save recipes I want to use. Therefore, Instagram knows that food posts are most likely to suck me into using the app for a longer period of time. It also adds one post that would bring me to the “Shop” Explore section of Instagram because I also enjoy looking at home decor and interior designers’ posts. In conclusion, I believe that the Instagram Explore page is a wonderful interactive feature of the app because of the way it positively uses people’s views to display posts of users’ interest. 

Sources: (photo)

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