Perception plays a broad role in how a person views things around him. It is seen in everyone in every aspect of life. In turn, it is important to find meaning from perception. In this episode, Beau Lotto talks about interpreting things that we perceive. Giving meaning to them can help us use our perception as a tool to achieve success. Listen in as Beau, a leading expert in perception who has aided numerous recognized companies, joins Dr. Diane Hamilton to explain how organizations can utilize it to adapt in a world that is constantly changing.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Beau Lotto here. Beau is a neuroscientist, author, public speaker, and entrepreneur of perception. He’s such a fascinating guy. You’ve probably seen his TED Talks. I can’t wait to have our conversation. I hope you stay tuned.
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Finding Meaning From Perception With Beau Lotto
I am here with Beau Lotto who uses the principles of neuroscience to explore what innovation is on how to create the framework that allows for innovation within organizations. He’s the leading expert in perception. He works with Cirque du Soleil, Microsoft, L’Oreal. He has these amazing masterclasses and TED Talks that if you haven’t seen them, they’re a must. It’s so nice to have you on the show, Beau.
Thank you. It’s brilliant to be here.
I watched several of your talks in the past. I saw your Cirque du Soleil one. I’m fascinated in the area of perception because that’s something that we need to talk about in the business world. I want to get into that, but I want to get a little background on you. You’re the Founder and CEO of the Lab of Misfits. I want to know how you got to this level and what led to your interest in perception?
I suppose back to front like most things I suppose. My interest in perception came from a much larger interest and how systems adapt. I’ve always been interested ever since as a young person, about how things change according to their experience of the world. I was strongly influenced by one of my first mentors, Marian Diamond, a wonderful individual. She’s a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was an undergraduate. She was my mentor as well as Robert. Both of them were exploring how natural systems change according to experience. She was one of the first people to do these remarkable experiments where she raised rats in different kinds of environments.
What she discovered was that the brain is much like a muscle. You use it or you lose it. When she would look at the cells from the cortex, which is where we and they do our thinking, she found that the cells from the rats that were raised in a deprived environment, which means very few other rats, very little interaction, maybe not unlike what’s happened in the locked down I suppose. The cells would atrophy. They would lose their connectivity. The brains became less complex. When she looked at the cells from the cortex of the rats from the enriched environment, she found that the cells had grown tremendously. Use it to lose it and that was fascinating to me. That led to my PhD in Edinburgh Medical School, in Scotland, where I was looking at the molecules that are responsible for brain growth.
I used to grow brain cells in a dish and look to see what are the factors responsible for brain growth? What’s remarkable is those same factors that response for keeping ourselves alive, proliferating and prospering are activity dependent. The more active you are, the more those molecules are released. The more your brain grows, the more active you are. It’s a wonderful positive to see back cycle. That led to working with a wonderful scientist and person named Dale Purves, who started the Neurobiology Department at Duke. He was a tremendous mentor. We started looking at the behavioral perceptual consequences of having a brain that is shaped by experience.
It’s fascinating all the things that you’re talking about. When you talked about an enriched environment, is it subjective? What is an enriched environment in that setting?
Enriched is a relative term. Your brain is constantly what we call redefining normality. It’s interesting how that phrase is being quite commonly used now with what people are calling the new normal. Your brain is constantly redefined your normality. We all know this to be true. Everyone has experienced this one day, for instance, go to watch a Sunday matinee film in a movie cinema where it’s bright outside. They walk inside the cinema and they can’t see a thing. It’s all black. Eventually, your eyes and your brain adapt. Your retina is an extension of your brain. It redefines normality. You can see different. What is enriched is relative to your normal. For someone who’s a mountain climber, their enriched environment is something that’s maybe very different from say a couch potato.
What’s important is that we’re experiencing what for each of us is an enrichment. That becomes a practice and a process because we can then become increasingly enriched, etc. It’s also important that not many people know this, but Marian also did experiments where she looked at what happens when you have an over enriched environment. Too much stimulation, too much change, too much uncertainty. What she found was that the cells from the cortex of those rats looked not unlike the cells from the deprived environment. It’s all about dosage. Something that’s called a trophic factor that promotes growth can become toxic at high concentrations. You can do too much. That’s also relative. What’s too much for one person might not be too much for another. What’s enriched for one person might not be enriching for another, but these are shifting dynamics. It’s a dynamic equilibrium that your body, your brain, and in nature is constantly seeking.
I’m thinking back to some of my training and working in pharmaceuticals for many years. You’re a sympathetic and parasympathetic and all these things. When you were talking about the mountain climber of how astronauts, once you’ve done a certain depth level, then what do you do to get this dopamine or whatever it is you’re trying to get? Is that what you’re we’re looking at is dopamine? Is that tied into this equation?
There are lots of different factors, citicoline, dopamine or epinephrine. We have lots of ways that cells communicate with each other. Dopamine is one of them. It’s called a neurotransmitter. GABA is another. One cell inhibits or excites another through this. You also have other factors that are not communication, but they’re more, in some sense hormones. They’re released more systemically either within the brain or throughout the body. I was personally looking at the latter. I’m looking at how neurotrophic factors, which are not necessarily used to communicate information but are more used to promote what’s called the efficacy of the relationship.
It strengthens the relationship between two cells, for instance, or it will expand the growth of one cell versus the other. It will enhance the circuit. All of these different parameters are involved. Some seem to have more relationships that are more related to, for instance, positive mood, some to negative mood, etc. It’s all contextual because the same molecule can have different kinds of effects, depending on the other molecules that are engaged in the system or one area of the brain that can have different outcomes depending on how the other areas of the brain are active.
If I hadn’t gotten into business, I would have loved to have gone into the area you’re talking about. I’ve talked to Albert Bandura and some amazing psychologist on the show of all these different things that impact how we react to things. When I was thinking about perception, I’m sure everybody asks you this, but a lot of people want to know the answer to this, is perception a reality?
Yes and no. It depends on what a typical scientist answers. Everything depends. First of all, there is a world. This is at least my view. This is not postmodern relativism. There is a physical world out there. We’re not in the matrix. We’re not minds in jars sitting on Berkeley’s shelves in his lap and my view. There is a simple word. The thing is we don’t see it. There’s a physical reality that maybe can be striped through measurement, but there’s also a perceptual reality. It’s that perceptual reality that we’re responding to. It’s that perceptual reality that you experience consciously and unconsciously.
There is a relationship between them. What we receive from the physical world is not the world as such. We received information about that world. We receive light that comes reflected off objects. We experienced vibrations in air arising from a tree that’s fallen in the woods. The perception of color, the perception of sound, the perception of another person is a subjective perception. We take that information and then we turn it into a meaning based on our experience. It’s that historical perceived value that we’re perceiving of the data, not the data, nor do we see the sources of the data. In other words, because we’re physically separate from that information. Your audience can do a simple experiment or more realistically, a demonstration on themselves to show this is true.
If they hold up a single finger in front of their face, their pointing finger ideally, they line it up. They move it towards them and away from them. They line it up something that’s larger in the distance. They’re moving it toward them, notice that as far as your eye is concerned, those two objects, your finger and the same that’s large in the distance are projecting the same on your retina. As far as your retina is concerned, they are the same thing. They are the same height. Your retina is the only source of information that your brain is receiving from the world of light, yet those two sources are not the same. One is larger than the other.
The data that’s coming onto your retina or going into ears, conflates multiple things about the world, in this case, size and distance. Your brain has no way of knowing the answer based on the data alone. It’s a historical context. All it can use is the history of what that information meant before given the other information that’s surrounding it. You’re seeing that history. Not just your history, it could be the history of your family. It could be the history of your culture. It could be your evolutionary history. All of which are encoded in your brain. In fact, you could argue that most of that history isn’t even yours.
Is it epigenetics? Is that what you’re saying?
It could be. We come into the world with, for instance, assumptions that light comes up from above. We also inherit these assumptions and biases from our culture and our family that’s been encoded in our brain. We generate perceptions of behavior accordingly. Is there a reality? Yes. There are two different kinds of reality.
We see a lot of people talk about perception or you see things going on in the internet, is the dress blue or is it gold? Is there an invisible gorilla? Why do you see them? All of a sudden with the cigar wasn’t there now, why can’t I stop seeing it type of things? Is there a certain perception experiment that fascinates you more than others? Why don’t we see the gorilla? Why do some people see blue and some people see gold?
I find them all fascinating. First of all, perception underpins everything it is to be human. Perception underpins not just the colors you see, but what you know, what you believe, the people you fall in love with. All of this begins with perception and what perception studies demonstrate. In particular, the illusions of perception demonstrate is that the brain didn’t evolve to see the world as it is. This notion that many people think, believe and even neuroscientists use illusions to demonstrate that our senses are somehow fragile or their accidents, their perception, or their mistakes is wrong. That’s only true if your brain evolved to see the world accurately, or to see the world inaccurately is therefore a mistake. It’s not true if your brain evolved to do something else.
The argument that we’re putting forward myself and Dale Purves and others is that your brain will evolve to see what was useful to see, which is not the same thing as seeing what’s there. That’s powerful. Many people think that, “If I’m not seeing reality, this must be scary because it means what do I have to hold on to?” It’s empowering because it means that you have the possibility of changing your perceptions. If there isn’t a singular meaning to something, then it means there can be multiple means, which means you can adapt. You can change. You can become an agent within the process of making meaning. It’s becoming aware of this rather than it feeling disempowering can be empowering, though, it’s clear that often the first step is to feel disempowerment. Why people have different perceptions? It’s because they have different experiences of the world. They have different histories. They have different assumptions and biases that have been encoded in the brain.The illusions of perception demonstrate that the brain didn't actually evolve to see the world as it really is. Click To Tweet
As you’re saying that, it’s bringing to mind, I see perception is influenced by so many things. Maybe what we’ve experienced can impact how the critical thinking, the IQ aspect of it, maybe the EQ aspect, if we have empathy or not. Based on if we ask questions or not, then we’re going into the curiosity aspect. We get into the cultural aspect. It’s a combination of things that makes us go through this decision-making process. If we’re doing that in the business world, we have our experience. It could be changing. What we’ve experienced is different from somebody else’s. How do you get along in the business world with all these different cultures if we all have different perceptions?
It seems to be a great problem that we faced in the business world. My lab and myself work with businesses to help them exactly with this and related problems. Businesses are confronted with this and also the need to adapt, the need to innovate. The most successful systems in nature are adaptable systems. They innovate. The problem is that businesses typically focus on only one side of the innovation equation. Innovation has two sides. It has efficiency and has creativity. Businesses focus on efficiency. They begin with creativity. Someone has a great idea, and they say, “What about this widget” or “What about this concept, this idea?” They think, “That’s wonderful.” They make it. They prototype it. Now they want to scale it and then they want to make it an efficient, great idea. That’s important.
The problem is they stop there. They continued to then compete around efficiency because now someone else will try to create the same widget. The competition is then making one more efficient than the other. Who can make it more for less? This is a great strategy if it weren’t for the fact that the world changes. The reality is that the world is constantly changing, which is why in our own mathematical modeling, we do artificial intelligence. We look at complex systems theory analysis. We apply this thinking to not perception, but also to adaptability more generally. We’re looking at what are the principles that enable any system to be adaptable, whether it be the brain or an economic system, or even an immune system. What also is required is creativity.
What we’ve found is that it’s a cycle. It’s not one or the other. Wisdom is not being at the edge of chaos. It’s being at the edge of chaos on average. It’s knowing when to be efficient, when to be creative. It’s the movement across them. More than that, it’s about creating that ecology, what we call the ecology of innovation that enables you to move from one to the other. You can even do that within your mind. You can also do that within the structure of how you organize a group and the principles around which the company and its practices are organized.
As you’re saying this, I’ve had a lot of people from Harvard on the show, who studied different aspects of creativity, curiosity. Francesca Gino and Amy Edmondson has been on. Daniel Goleman has been on Emotional Intelligence. I’ve talked to a lot of these experts about where does curiosity fits in. No matter who I’ve talked to when you’re talking about any of this, they all say, “Curiosity comes first before creativity or before any of these other things that we’re trying to do.” Do you agree with that? How do you put it?
Yes and no. I put it second to care. You have to give a crap. You have to care because if you don’t care, you’re not going to ask a question. We’ve developed an education program, for instance, with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We were doing this in Britain. The first thing we did as our part of our process and this was a process that reframes science as play, a play with intention. Anything that is created is play with intention because play is an evolution solution to uncertainty. I’d argue science is evolution solution to uncertainty, but it’s a way of being in the world. It begins with caring. We would find out and catalyze the children, the young people to care.
In some instances, I didn’t care what they cared about. I did as individuals. I cared what Jimmy cared about, what Amy cared about, but what I wanted them to do was to care. If they care, they’re going to now become curious. They’re going to ask a question. Before you can even be curious and ask a question, you need to care. That has to exist within a larger context. The problem in businesses often is they want people to be creative. The most important skill according to a LinkedIn survey is the skill of creativity. The third being adaptability. I think creativity falls within the adaptability. The problem is that the businesses take their efficiency model and they try to implement creativity within efficiency. It doesn’t work because the greatest, one of the best strategies for maximize efficiency is competition.
It’s a bad idea if you’re trying to maximize creativity. Why? Curiosity requires the statement, “I don’t know.” Whereas in business, we educate to know. You’re rewarded for knowing. You’re not rewarded for not knowing. You need to care, that’s first. Before even curiosity, you need an environment and ecology where curiosity is positive. Otherwise, what will happen is people aren’t going to say, “I don’t know.” They’re not going to ask a question because nothing interesting begins with knowing. It begins with not knowing. I want people to finish that’s coming away with knowing less than they did when they answered.
I want to add something as you’re talking about this. In my research, what I was looking at was what inhibits curiosity. I figured how can you become more curious if you don’t know what’s stopping you. I found that fear, assumptions, what we tell ourselves in our head, technology, over and underutilization of it, and environment, everybody we’ve ever known has all got a huge impact. We think we care maybe because of what we’re telling ourselves based on our fear. It all circulate within that.
Yes. Having said that, fear can be a tremendous source of curiosity.
What scares us is what fixes us.
The question is what you do with it. Fear by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s all contextual. Everything is contextual. The question is, do you go from fear to anger as one potential access? Fear is often the fear of uncertainty. Uncertainty is our biggest fear, which we’re all experiencing. My lab has been studying for decades. How does your brain adapt to uncertainty? It’s our biggest fear. The question is one strategy is to go to anger. Anger is a great strategy because now you feel very certain. When you go to hate, you become more judgmental. You become a more extreme version of yourself. You’re completely certain. You can also go from fear to curiosity. It depends on the environment and the context that you’re in whether or not that’s enabled.
A lot of this is talking about things that are holding us back. That’s what I’m interested in. Getting people aware of this. You’re bringing awareness to things that a lot of people don’t even talk about. Awe is something that was interesting to me in your TED Talk. What got you interested in awe in the first place?
It’s related to your previous question, which is about curiosity. We were curious to know what is awe and who cares?
Why pick that from out of all the things in the world?
There’s some previous research by a number of very good scientists, who started to study awe out of the Keltner Lab, in particular. We’ve been asking about what is awe and people have been exploring on literature and arts, etc. for hundreds of years. Awe is used in many instances. We can talk about how all can be weaponized. We haven’t understood what does it do inside your brain. Does it matter? What Keltner Lab and others have shown is that you have this sense of feeling small but connected to the world. It increases your pro-social behavior. In other words, it makes you more likely to look after others.
We found that we found that as well. We also found something more complex. The reason why we are wondering about this is to get at that care. How do we facilitate people going to the very place that the brain evolved to avoid, which is uncertainty? We hate uncertainty. To be uncertain during evolution was a bad idea. To not know increase your chance of dying. You were more successful the more you able to predict. Not the less you’re able to predict. If you couldn’t predict you got selected out. Dying during evolution was easy. It’s still is. There are more ways of dying than there are to stay alive.
When you experience uncertainty, your brain feels a threat. It feels existential threats. This is a very bad idea. It’s a bit like when you eat something that’s toxic and you feel nauseous because your brain is saying, “Let’s get rid of that.” What’s more, let’s remember not to have that again. Your brain feels this threat and says, “This is a bad idea. Escape, get out of here,” which is why you often go from fear of uncertainty to panic. I don’t want to be here. I don’t care why I am, just not here. The irony is that the only way you can see differently and be creative is to go to that very place of uncertainty. How can we help people go to that place? The argument is that awe, which is a subset of a brain state, of a way of being in the world that evolved to help us go there. We want to study that. We worked with Cirque du Soleil because they’re brilliant at engendering awe.
When we worked with them, it’s like, “You’re not in the business of a circus. You’re not in the business of people buying tickets to go to a circus. They’re buying tickets to experience awe.” The circus is the mediator of the experience. We measured what happens in the brain during that experience. We also measured what happens to behavior before and after. We found that, for instance, people’s tolerance to risk increased. Their need for closure decreased. In other words, they’re better able to fit with uncertainty. The sense of community increased. These were correlated with changes in brain state. The prefrontal cortex decreased and what’s called your DMN activity increased. You felt more present and self-reflective.
Shortly after that, your prefrontal cortex, the front of your brain, which is your newest evolutionary neural structure, which is something we’re fascinated about. It became asymmetrical. It became more active on one side versus the other, which is correlated with people wanting to step forward into the world, not back. As if you’re sitting back and saying, “This is amazing. Now I want to step forward.” You’re stepping forward into uncertainty with the desire to take risks and with poor social behavior. That’s why we studied it.
This is fascinating to me because we talked about uncertainty, but we have so much uncertainty. You’ll never know the meaning of life probably. How do we live with that then? We don’t know the meaning of life. You’ll never probably get that answer to questions like that. Why are you here? People make up things sometimes to be able to get past that uncertainty. If we knew everything, if we knew exactly why we were here now, then it’d be pretty boring. How do you find the balance? Do we make up stuff so we can feel better?
Yes, largely. That also has to be useful though. It can’t be willy-nilly. It needs to be done in a way that has some use. Use doesn’t necessarily mean good, but often what’s useful is the thing that decreases our uncertainty. Almost every behavior we do in my view is an attempt to decrease uncertainty. You could argue that the most successful businesses are the ones that decrease uncertainty. Take Uber as an example. I often use this in my talks and other places. Uber is partly successful because they enable you to order a taxi easier and faster. Is that why they’re successful? We think one of the reasons is because they decrease uncertainty. They tell you when the taxi is going to arrive.We take information from perception and then turn it into meaning based on our experience. Click To Tweet
You might be on a street corner here in New York and you’re thinking, “I got to go to this meeting,” not now because we’re coming out of lockdown. Five minutes have passed. Your cortisol levels are up. You’re feeling stressed. Instead, I say, “Don’t worry, it’ll be there in five minutes. I’m going to show you where it is.” Your cortisol levels stay low, etc. The things that we tell ourselves, our perceptions, our behavior is an attempt to decrease that uncertainty. Often then that can lead to, for instance, panic as an example. When you feel that threat that people were experiencing when we first learned about COVID, you had everyone rushing out and buying toilet paper. They were panicking. Why? Their brain was going into what we call a disempowered state.
When your brain goes into a disempowered state, a number of things happen. My lab has shown that illusions start becoming stronger. You start seeing patterns where no pattern exists. Your brain starts becoming more gullible. You become more susceptible to these conspiracy theories. They become seemingly more rational. Why? Your brain is trying to get certainty. It feels like, “At least I’ve got toilet paper. At least I’m doing something.” It’s doing it reactively, not proactively. The power is in shifting that to a proactive behavior rather than a reactive behavior, which is to engage your prefrontal cortex. We have a new teacher that we created called Activate Your Prefrontal. Get your prefrontal engaged. What that does is it helps you look away from the obvious. It helps you look away from reflective responses. It’s not what you look at.
As far as the Uber thing, I don’t understand why the cab companies couldn’t create an app to compete because that’s what it was. You do want to know your car is coming. You want to know somebody is showing up. You also mentioned you can weaponize awe. I want to go back to that because I want to know how do you do that?
Many of these things, what I mean by things, our perceptions, our brain states are neither good nor bad. They are contextual. Sometimes when anger and hate can be a very powerfully positive thing, usually not. It’s protection. If someone’s attacking my daughter, it’s a great response. The similarly with awe. We typically think of awe as being a wonderful, positive thing, but people in the military can experience awe. They often report this in these terrible dire situations. Feeling small but connected to the world with this tremendous huge thing against them. Military parades are used to inspire awe because now your brain state is open. You’re feeling connected to those around you. You’re more susceptible to being influenced.
Churches have used awe. The dome of the church I’ve been told, one of the reasons why there is a dome that used to be smaller is not for architectural reasons. It’s for reasons of sound because the choir was behind the altar covered. You couldn’t see them, but their sound would go up to the dome and then reflect down to the congregation. You’d have this remarkable sound coming from above inspiring awe. You would feel connected to those around you, more willing to listen and take part in what was now being told to you. You can use it to facilitate change for the good or the bad. We’ve used awe and we’re doing experiments where we’re looking to see whether we can use awe to facilitate a decrease in intolerance and increase toleration.
Our pilot studies suggest that in certain contexts awe can be very powerful in diminishing intolerance. As you’re saying that, it reminds me of your TED Talk of some of the things you said, of the things that awe leads to. You said it enables us to move forward, that it gives you the curiosity to overcome cowardice and other things. You also said that it was tied into understanding another person, their biases, and assumptions. As I’m thinking about what leaders need to do, how can they take what you’ve researched in perception, awe, and all these things, how can we improve their understanding of perception? What are some things that leaders should be doing to be better based on your work with perception and awe that they’re not doing?
We have a lot of examples of what leaders should not be doing. I do a lot of work with leadership, whether at the C level and management levels to address exactly this question, whether it be Sainsbury’s or Johnson & Johnson, etc. The first point is you want to become aware of how perception works. You only have a choice when you know you have one. The power of understanding perception is that you can then learn what are the barriers to seeing differently. An example is that everything you’re doing and seeing is grounding assumptions and biases. Most of those biases, you don’t even know you have. Some of the best people to reveal those biases to you is not you. It’s someone else, but you need an ecology that enables those biases to revealed and therefore the power of diversity.
They need to be creating a diverse. First of all, they need to create an environment in which this is possibly the innovation ecology. That needs to be diverse. It also needs to be dynamic. The reason why it needs to be diverse is because, if you give me two groups, one group says lower average IQ, but from a diverse background, the other group, higher IQ from the same background, I want the first group for at least two reasons. First of all, we know from complex systems theory, the best solutions exist in a context search space, not an essential search space. That diverse background of people will give you a diverse search space. This is much better for creativity as long as it’s an ecology of non-competition but of collaboration. They need to create both of those.
There’s too little on this focus. People will acknowledge the importance of diversity. For a biologist, there’s nothing to acknowledge, it’s so obvious. The power of diversity is the engine of evolution. What often people forget is you need to integrate across that diversity. That’s a simple system that’s diverse, but not integrated. It’s complicated. It requires high energy to maintain that system. A system that’s diverse but integrated requires less energy. It’s more adaptable. It’s more resilient. That’s where the leader comes in because a leader needs to create that ecology that enables this to happen. It’s about creating the environment. It’s leading people through the ecology and vision can be part of that. When you ask what defines a good leader, it’s how you lead others into uncertainty.
There are three items that associates with that, which is lead by example, admit mistakes, and see qualities in others. That’s because these three aspects are related to enabling others to step into uncertainty. You lead by example is the space that’s trusted. You can’t step into uncertainty. It’s outside of the space of trust. You can’t play outside of the space of trust. You can’t ask questions and be curious. Make mistakes is a space that says, “Not knowing is a good thing.” We have another teacher like a superhero character. He’s pulling open his shirt and he says, “I don’t know.” That’s like superhuman strength. You could argue that science is nothing other than an iteration of a better question. It’s not an iteration to answer. Creating an environment where it’s trying to find better and better questions. To create a space that enables others is a space that celebrates integration across diversity. These are principles around which leadership can facilitate innovation. They get applied differently depending on the context you’re in.
As you’re talking about all this, I’m thinking of when Daniel Goleman was on my show and I was asking him about emotional intelligence, which is what I wrote my dissertation on. I wanted to get his insight about how to improve it. He said he thought you needed a 360 evaluation. A lot of leaders don’t want to hear from other people. I’m sure the leaders who hire you have that open-mindedness because they’ve decided to culture comes from the top and they know it goes down. A lot of people I talk to work for companies where the leader hasn’t bought into the need for this. If you’re talking to them, do you tell them, it’s time to maybe cut bait? What if the leader doesn’t see the need for all of this? You’re in maybe mid-level leadership management position. How do you change culture?
It all begins with the self in one sense, which is you can’t have a creative company if the people themselves aren’t living creatively. This is a way of being in the world. You don’t turn this on when you walk through the door of your office. This is the way you engage. It’s particularly the way you engage with conflict. It’s something that you can apply in every aspect of your life. When I talk to the corporations, the businesses, I’m talking about not just the business, I’m talking about them as people. This is how you engage with your partner. This is how you engage with your children as well. We can be creative and innovative. What’s more, creativity is not this mysterious, messy process that many people including in science advocates.
I don’t think there’s anything crazy about creativity. When you see someone being creative and we think, “How did they put those two things that are far apart together?” They’re not. They’re making a small step to the next most likely possible. It’s for you that they’re far apart because you have a different space of possibility because you have different assumptions and biases. This can be a very systematic learnable process. What it requires is a desire in a very straightforward to understand, rather than to know, or even more to convince. That is a very personal thing. You can apply that in every aspect of your life at whatever level of management you are. That will have a powerful impact on those around you. Let’s consider conflict, which we all engage in.
We engage in conflict all the time, which I defined as being in a situation that’s different from what you expect. The thing is there are lots of situations where we loved that. To watch, in my case, a soccer game between Arsenal and Chelsea where I want Arsenal to win. If I knew who was going to win, how boring. I’m in conflict because I don’t know who’s going to win, but I love it. Oddly enough, for whatever reason, there are other situations where we hate for not knowing. That’s what we typically call conflict, but it’s only one subset of a much larger set of engaging in situations different from what I expect. When we get into those types of situations, what happens is that if you and I are in conflict, I’m going to try to prove that you’re wrong and it’s you towards me.
You’re going to try to do exactly the opposite to prove that I’m wrong. It’s shifting towards you. Notice that we set up a conflict to win and not learn. We’re seeing that in this administration where it sets up to convince that I’m not going to move, but systems that don’t move die. They get selected out. Life is movement. Learning is to move, not necessarily towards or away from where you are and ideally to a higher dimensional space to be more complex. You can apply that principle and all your audience, the next time you’re in conflict, enter it with a question.
Not with a question implied to convince, but with a question that is seeking understanding because to understand another person is to not know what’s in aware and what they did is to know why they did it because everybody makes sense to themselves. They don’t make sense to other people because we’re assessing them according to our assumptions and biases from our experience, not theirs. When you find out what their assumption or biases are, suddenly it can become internally consistent. You can understand it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you validate, but you can’t validate to see first don’t understand them. Enter conflict with a question.
I’m thinking about this knowing versus not knowing and trying to get this tolerance of understanding even if we don’t necessarily have the same opinion. You’ve got to get rid of these assumptions, biases or even recognize them to some extent. Do you do assessments? Do you assess that? I’m interested in is how you assess this and how do you answer their questions about the tie-in financially to improving perception? If there isn’t a data set that you can say, “You’re going to have X, Y, Z productivity if you inspire awe or if you have the ability to get rid of bias, you’re going to make 100 more widgets.”
First of all, we can’t get rid of biases. The concept of stepping outside the box to me is a silly idea. All you do is you step inside a new box. Your brain can’t function without bias and assumptions because they keep you alive. You take a step. You have an assumption that the floor is not going to give way. We couldn’t walk if we didn’t have assumptions or biases. The thing is that they constrain us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When the world shifts, you then need to, in my view, not change your biases but expand them. You want to expand your space possibly. You’re not changing. The financial reward of this is adaptability. Your system, your business can become agile and resilient.
You’re more likely to be sustainable to changes in the environment. Companies are constantly looking to how to innovate. What they typically do is they then buy into innovation. They expand by acquisition, but then they subsume it within an efficiency model rather than creating a system that is itself intrinsically adaptable and dynamic. That will facilitate resilience and the ability to change the world. There’s tremendous financial value in that. The second is that if you create a culture where people are adaptable, one consequence of that is you feel more optimistic. We know all the benefits of feeling optimistic, more productivity, more creativity, more curiosity, living longer, better relationships, etc. These all feedback into productivity, innovation, and creativity of the system. We also work with companies on Lab of Misfits. We create what we call experiential experiments.
Cirque du Soleil was one example of several. What we do is we then say, “Let’s take these principles and let’s work with your audiences via your business.” Let’s take your widget. Your widget has a purpose, but you need authenticity within that purpose. Let’s enable people to engage in that purpose with authenticity through your product. In doing so, you can create loyalty with your customer base as well as expand it. That also increases the sustainability for business and also expands it. There are a number of ways of implementing this, both at the leadership level, the personal level, but also with your customers. We’re interested in engaging with all of that. The fact is that businesses will thrive if they’re more agile and they’re more adaptable. They need a principal by which to do this. They’re branding DNA that needs to have a purpose and that purpose needs to be authentic.
As you talk about that, I had Ross Thornley and Mike Raven, who have that AQai adaptability assessment that they came up with and I found it fascinating. You guys would have a lot to chat about in that respect. There’s so much work that could be done in so many areas of behavior. There’s one other thing that you touched on your TED Talk that is an interesting thing about closure. You hit it out of the ballpark with that. Was it hard to pick which song you were going to use to not end with?
I start with that for a number of reasons. More generally in all the talks, I want people to feel what I’m talking about and not hear what I’m talking about because the brains embody. I want them to not know. I want them to understand and understanding comes through embodiment. If I say, “One of the greatest needs we have is closure.” They say, “That’s interesting.” If I get them to feel the desire for closure, now they understand. I needed a piece of music that everybody would know that ramped up to a crescendo and didn’t close. Deejays use this all the time. My sons do deejay. They’re brilliant in deejaying. What they do is they ramp up dopamine and the music and then they do, what’s called, drop it.Assumptions are inherited from culture and family that has encoded everything in our brain. Click To Tweet
They dropped the beat. When you go to the nightclubs, you’re dancing, the deejays ramping it up. Everyone’s building up anticipation and then the beat drops and the whole body moves. We love closure. I would argue that the most powerful thing of uncertainty, the reason why uncertainty can be a powerful thing is not the uncertainty itself. There’s a lot of talk about celebrating uncertainty, etc. If your uncertainty for too long, it becomes remarkably stressful. It’s a cycle. What you want is closure. The closure doesn’t make sense if you didn’t have the uncertainty before. You need closure. What you do is you start the cycle again. It’s a process. It’s not one or the other. It’s not one side of edge of chaos or the other.
It’s the movement between so you get closure. For me, it’s a spiral. You start with an idea. You explore that idea. You’re adding noise to the system. You’re increasing the dimensionality of the search space. You add employees. You add diversity. You now have more context or space. You find a better idea. You start moving back towards the center again. You’re making it more efficient. You’re getting rid of etc. You’re maximizing the efficiency of that idea. You have closure. You start the process again. That cycle happens at different frequencies depending on the nature of the question in the system.
You don’t want to have that cycle when you’re thinking about your branding DNA for Google every week. You can do that if you’re trying to solve a small problem within Google, within one department. Google itself needs to do this for its whole institution. We do this at different spatial frequencies depending on the challenge that we’re facing. The body does the same thing. Evolution does the same thing. The mutation rate of your eyes is very different from the mutation rate of your segmentation genes. The consequence of mutating one or the other is very different.
You’re talking about this feeling, the desire for the closure, and all of that. It made me think about when I was watching them, how do you get somebody to fill the desire for curiosity or for perception? I felt the need for closure there, but have you ever done anything similar for perception or in general. I’d love to know how would you get people to feel the desire for curiosity?
It’s finding out what they care about.
It’s how you opened up your TED Talk, you got them to feel that desire. Is there an impactful first opening to a TED Talk you would do that would make people feel the desire to be curious?
That’s one of them. I’ve done three TED Talks and I tried to do the same thing in all my talks. First of all, I tried to engage. I bring people up on stage, things like this. I have a process. In fact, the process of my book, Deviate, that takes you through this process is what we call the perceptual change process. There’s a series of steps that we’re exploring that facilitate perceptual change, that leads to behavioral change. This process is about five steps to it. The book takes people through the steps. One of the first steps is the one you’re talking about. How do you engage people in that way? That depends on the audience with whom you’re speaking or the person with whom you’re interacting with. It needs to be specific to them. Part of the aim is to talk about something that transcends the topic.
When we work on conflict, especially if say with politics, we don’t talk about politics. What we’re trying to do is to get people to have doubts at a deeper level. If I can get you to have doubts about the colors you see, then how can you hold so strongly to the color that you see of another person? The brain is intrinsically curious. The brain comes into the world curiously. James, the tremendous philosopher and psychologist, he has this phrase that we come into the world in this bumbling mass confusion. It’s not quite that, but effectively that point. That’s probably wrong. I have three children myself. We come into the world differently.
To be confused assumes that what’s happening now is different from what I expect. It’s not what I thought it was going to be. To be confused is we know it decreases the prefrontal cortex. You step back from the experience, you don’t want to step forward. Far more powerful would be to want to step forward into the world. We come into the world with a sense of awe and wonder. That’s amazing. That would make sense because when you need to explore, we’re born too soon. Not only because the birth canal is known as the brisk canal, but also because our brain is remarkably plastic. Now we can adapt to our local environment, which is one of the reasons why humans can occupy such a diverse range of environments and ecological niches. We construct them. You want to bring that wants to step forward into the world. Curiosity is possibly an evolved strategy to step forward because that’s useful in order to explore it because then your brain needs feedback.
It can’t get feedback if it can’t step forward and interact, but it needs the intrinsic rewards do so. There was that feeling of curiosity that might be an intrinsic reward that propels us to step forward. What if we come into the world with that, but the problem is in our education system is we teach it out because then we become afraid of getting things wrong of not knowing and the need to conform. The need to be certain, the requirement to be certain and all the leadership principles that you are the leader. You’re supposed to have the answers rather than to create a context for asking questions. My role as a leader of my two startups is to ask questions and then create an environment for people to explore the answers.
I like that you deviate from the norm. Your book is Deviate. If anybody hasn’t had a chance to read that, I highly recommended it. I was so focused on your TED Talks. They’re inspiring and awe-inspiring. I want to make sure we do mention your book and all your work has been very instrumental in the area of perception and beyond. It was so exciting to have you on the show, but a lot of people are going to want to know how they can follow you and learn more. Is there some a site or something you want to share?
Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. We have a Lab of Misfits site. On that site, we have what we call the Community Page, where we post blogs by myself and other misfits. We have different themes like thriving uncertainty, adapting to uncertainty. We update this weekly. We also on the site engage people in experiments so people can become part of experiments and then we can present the data live. They can see how they fit when you’re called to review. We give your evidence back to you. Our aim again is to facilitate your awareness because without awareness gives the empowerment of choice.
We have other ways to engage in that regard. We have people that run our Instagram, where we do Instagram Live every Friday and people send questions. I answer those questions for people over half-hour. There are a number of ways. We turned my lab into a theater night club experience. At least we were before this lockdown and we will again where we put on shows. Everything in that space is being measured and people know it, but then they walk away with the better insights into self. People can take part in those experiences.
You are quite the entertainer. I love watching your talks. I imagine those are amazing experiences. Thank you so much. I know I kept you a long time, but I loved all this. It’s very helpful to me in my research. I’m sure everybody can use what you have found in their work experiences. This was so much fun. Thank you so much, Beau.
Thank you. I enjoyed it.
I’d like to thank Beau for being my guest. We get so many great guests. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamilton.com. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you joined us for the next episode.
- Beau Lotto
- Lab of Misfits
- Albert Bandura – Previous episode
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Ross Thornley – Previous episode
- Mike Raven – Previous episode
- Community Page
About Beau Lotto
Beau Lotto uses the principles of neuroscience to explore what innovation really is and how to create the framework that allows for innovation within organizations. Beau is a leading expert in perception who has helped brands like Cirque du Soleil, Microsoft and L’oreal gain valuable, science-backed insights into their businesses and customers. Through talks, masterclasses and a proprietary form of consultancy build on “experiential experiments” he teaches organizations how to apply scientific truths about perception to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing world.
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