– A Visual Exploration of Reflexology

My mother likes watching healthcare shows. She also loves to share with me, even though she has to call me from China. Most of these shows are about teaching people general knowledge, like the ingredients of a healthy diet or special recipes to relieve back stress or headache. She likes to talk about new information she learned from these shows, although sometimes I am not totally listening.

But the conversation makes me think a lot about traditional healthcare. For example, I was introduced to reflexology in the first grade in primary school. In school in China, we have a special reflexology for the eyes. This eye-reflexology treatment has been used as the standard exercise for all students in China since 1963, with familiar music playing over loud speakers. We do this treatment twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It helps the students reduce eye strain from reading. It is like a massage for eyes. There are four exercises in the treatment for the four different reflex zones.

Reflexology, or zone therapy, is an alternative medicine involving the physical act of applying pressure to the feet, hands, or face with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques. The hands are open doors to the body’s systems. Each section of the hand correlates to a specific organ. Stimulating nerves on specific areas of the hand can increase blood flow and eliminate toxins in the corresponding organs and systems of the body. Although reflexologists cannot claim to cure a sickness or disease, the practice is known to be beneficial for relaxing the body and relieving stress, for improving circulation and relieving pain, and for stimulating the immune and nervous systems.

Eastern cultures have been using reflexology treatment for thousands of years. Shiatsu is Japanese for "finger pressure". It is a type of alternative medicine consisting of finger and palm pressure, stretches, and other massage techniques. There is no scientific evidence for any medical efficacy of shiatsu, but some shiatsu practitioners promote it as a way to help people relax and cope with issues such as stress, muscle pain, nausea, anxiety, and depression.

On the other hand, Western healthcare relies heavily on prescription drugs, psychotherapy, and surgical procedures to “heal” the sick, and many westerns are seeking alternatives. Reflexology is one of the most used alternative therapies in Denmark. A national survey from 2005 showed that 21.4% of the Danish population had used reflexology at some point in their lives, and 6.1% had used reflexology within the previous year. A study from Norway showed that 5.6% of the Norwegian population in 2007 had used reflexology within the last 12 months.

I am a graduate student in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art. “How can I design something for reflexology?” I found inspiration in Paola Antonelli’s TED talk, “Treats Design as Art ”. In her presentation, Paola introduces many design examples, but one example resonated with me the most: a school of design in Jerusalem that tried to find a better way to design gas masks for people. So a teenager can sip a Coke, and a parent can hold their toddler. Paola then discussed the relationship between design and science. “ I’m trying to find not the metaphors but, rather, the points in common–the common gripes, the common issues, the common preoccupations–and I think that it will enable us to go a little further in this idea of design as an instruction, as a direction rather than a prescription of form.”

I based my thesis project on reflexology. I created an interactive way for audiences to feel the relationship of reflex zones on their hands with organs in their body. I designed a device, inset on the surface of the device are six Force Sensitive Resistors, each of which corresponds to the location of the reflex zone on the left palm. Each of the reflex zones is related to an organ of the body. For those who may not know, a force sensitive resistor is a round sensor with a 0.5" diameter, sensing area. This sensor will vary its resistance depending on how much pressure is being applied to the sensing area. Pressing and holding a particular sensor will trigger a visual presentation on screen reflecting the activity and accumulating effect on the respective organ. These visual presentations mimic the organ’s activity. The rhythm of all visual presentations interacts with sensors to detect the level of force when the finger touches and presses each of the each reflex zones on the palm.

My thesis project was on display at Meyerhoff Gallery at Maryland Institute College of Art from March to April. Interactive design enables audiences to gain knowledge through participation, which is both efficient and exciting. My thesis work explored one way that design and science can be intertwined, just as Paola Antonelli said.

During the show, I got a lot of valuable feedback from the audience. One of the girls talked to me when I was shooting the video for the exhibition. She told me she was a massage therapist before she came to MICA to become an art student. She used to work at a healthcare institution and was very familiar with the reflexology and body meridians. She felt so excited to see people visit my interactive design, get to understand reflexology, and be willing to give it a try.

Also, my mother flew all the way from China to see my exhibition. I mentioned to that her that my concepts originally came from our conversation. But she was still surprised by how I turned all the reflex zones and organs into abstract visual representations. “It’s an improvement on the way traditional reflexology is taught, which is with a teaching card and body map,” my mother said. “This is a way I never thought of before!” My mother suggested that I introduce more reflex zones to the audience, especially those zones on the foot, because the effects of reflex zones on the human foot were more remarkable. She also agreed with me that sometimes it is difficult to convey the cultural spirit behind reflexology to Western audiences. We both believe it is interesting and worthy to continue my thesis project.

My friend Patrick, who is pursuing a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, visited my exhibition. I explained my project to him. Patrick thought it was pretty interesting to visualize human organs. He suggested that I bring more sensors to this project in the future, like a pulse sensor, humidity sensor, temperature sensor, etc. “It will have more interactions and be a more responsive experience,” he said. I told him that my original idea was to make a glove with sensors, and by wearing the glove, people could feel the relationship of the reflex zones on your hand to the corresponding organs. That was the initial reason I choose pressure sensor.

During our conversation, I told Patrick that it is common for designers and other creative people in the visual arts to feel that we are not contributing enough to society at large when compared with people of advanced professions like scientists and engineers.“But truly imaginative visual work is extremely important to society,” Patrick said. “Although designers sometimes don't do things that are immediately functional, they increase our understanding of issues. Designers point people in positive directions: toward better designs and better quality of life. People will change their behavior in response to improved designs.”

When designers present visual work to society, whether in an exhibition or within a design discussion, we hope our work opens up a sense of inquiry in the mind. We are seeding the imaginations of others. There may be no way to know who is going to take something from that and turn it into something else, but inspiration is cross-pollinating. So a piece of artwork in a museum may inspire a student or a scientist, and that in turn may be the seed that inspires a doctor or an engineer. Designers, play an important role in this inspiration process. Society depends on people to share information and work from all directions and all disciplines. Design has the power to have direct and indirect impact on the world.