S2 Episode 23: Awestruck! Part One

What is awe? It’s not wonder, or surprise, or pleasure — it’s a state of mind that Dr. Beau Lotto calls “finding the impossible in the common.” Dr. Lotto is a neuroscientist who specializes in perception; he once actually measured awe in the brains of people watching Cirque du Soleil. Learn where awe originates, why it evolved, and even how military leaders might weaponize it. Plus… why Dr. Lotto says babies are born “useless.”

Phil Stieg:  We are going to close out season two of This Is Your Brain with a special double episode – an exploration into the nature of perception and the experience of “awe”.  This week and next we will be listening to an interview I did with Dr. Beau Lotto, professor at the University of London and visiting scholar at New York University.  Dr. Lotto  is a world-renowned expert in perception, and the founder of the whimsically named “Lab of Misfits” – the world’s only neuro-perception creative studio that is also a real  neuroscience lab.  In this first part, Dr. Lotto and I discuss the fascinating field of perception, and the innovative experiment he conducted in collaboration with the world-famous Circ du Soleil. 

 Beau, thank you for being with us today.

Beau Lotto: Well, thank you for the invitation and opportunity.

Phil Stieg: So let’s get it out of the way. What is “Awe”?

Beau Lotto: Actually, we’ve been asking that question for thousands of years, haven’t we? And poets and artists and musicians have been asking it. And only recently have neuroscientists and psychologists been asking the question. So what is it and what does it do? Well, it’s a state of the brain. And we actually recorded what happens in your brain when people are experiencing Awe. And maybe even more significantly, we better understand what it actually does to your brain, to your behavior, to your perception.

Phil Stieg: So is it an emotion?

Beau Lotto: I would argue it’s a perception, but I would argue almost everything is a perception. I argue that everything begins with perception. So for me, it’s like the perception of a color of a surface is the perception of an experience.

Phil Stieg: OK, so then it’s not surprise and it’s not wonder and it’s not fear – or could it be one of those. or is that a component of it?

Beau Lotto: Well, those are all components. So some would argue that awe is –  it begins with surprise. And then it gives you the sense that I’ve not seen this before and I don’t understand what’s going on. And that’s a bit where Wonder stops where you feel like, I don’t know what’s going on, but if I did, I bet it would sit within the context and already know, whereas “awe” says I don’t know what’s going on. And to understand this I’m going to have to change my view of myself in the world.  So it’s actually has the basis of being transformative. 

Phil Stieg: As I was reading through your writings on this, I was trying to think of where am I awestruck? And I am always awestruck when I’m stuck in traffic in New York, where puddling along at five miles an hour and then eventually the road just opens up. And I’ve got why on God’s green earth wasn’t it just always going? Is that “awe” or is that just a misunderstanding of the state of being?

Beau Lotto: Well, actually. Well, that’s a pleasant surprise, that’s for sure, if you’re in New York.  But actually, it’s I think it is a state of being in a way. I think all is less about the world. It’s more about us. It’s how we look at the world. Now, we often think that all is engendered by something that’s grand, that’s massive, you know, looking out into the universe or, you know, looking through a telescope.  But I think the basis of awe  might be finding the impossible in the common.   

Phil Stieg: So it’s a psychological state of being?

Beau Lotto: Yeah.  Psychological and ultimately a neurological state of being. 

Phil Stieg: OK, so you’re young, bright guy, starting off your career and you go, OK, I’m going to start studying Awe I mean,  what happened there? Was there an event in your life or where you’re sitting in Cirque du Soleil and say, Oh my God?

Beau Lotto: Well, first of all, I appreciate that the “young and bright” I’m not sure either actually apply because I’m now over 50 and the brightness is to be determined… So why did we study Awe? Because we’re studying – We’re interested in perception. We’re interested in how and why we see what we do.  But we’re also interested in creating experiences that enable people to expand their perception. Not just change.  It would be arrogant to me to assume that people should change their perception, but I think we all agree that we could expand our perception. And so what are the mechanisms by which we can do that? And that’s why we studied awe. Maybe awe is essential – an essential ingredient at least for expanding our perceptions of the world.

Phil Stieg: Is there a way to measure Awe?  Or is it…

Beau Lotto: There is.

Phil Stieg: OK, so tell us how you measure Awe. Then what you did with the Cirque du Soleil  to show what it is.

Beau Lotto: So what we did is we did a number of things.  We measured people’s change in perception, behavior and their and their brain state. We had a number of people sitting up in the VIP boxes fitted with EEGs, which means they were fitted with a cap. They had all kinds of surface electrodes that’s recording the general activity in their brain. And during the performance, they would report to us when they experienced Awe, and when they didn’t.  Then what we could do is correlate what’s happening in the brain at that moment of perceiving awe and compare it to the time when they didn’t.  And then we discovered, for instance, that the activity in the front part of the brain actually goes down. It’s called the prefrontal cortex. It goes down during that moment. And what’s called the default mode network, the activity there goes up. Why does this matter? It’s because it’s as if you become absorbed in the experience and you’re identifying with that experience. And a short while after the activity in your brain then switches and it becomes correlated with the moment where you actually want to step forward into the world.  

What’s more, we could actually train artificial neural networks on the brain activity of all these subjects, and we’re then able to predict whether or not people were experiencing awe to an accuracy of a maximum of 80 percent. So we can actually brain read.  The relevance of that is it means not only could we actually use that to, say, construct even more awe-inspiring performances – but it means that the pattern of activity across all these brains is very systemized, is fairly similar between each other. 

Phil Stieg: What were the parts of the show that were consistently awe inspiring?

Beau Lotto: Ah, so that’s where we’re now going to go back and start asking exactly that question.  What’s interesting is that your brain is always contextual, which means that it’s not just any moment, it’s what comes before and what comes after. So if you have a tremendous sort of quiet time, singular focus, and then suddenly you expand it, that expansion actually feels even more inspiring because of what came before it. So life is dynamic. Nothing happens in an isolated moment. What’s meaningful is what surrounds it in space of time. So we’re starting to think about what does that narrative, what does that trajectory that inspires awe? Not just the moment in time, but what came before and after.

Phil Stieg: What’s the difference between awe and pleasure? As I’m sitting here listening to you, I’m thinking, OK, for me, it would be a sense of pleasure.  I put on the Brandenburg concertos and all of a sudden, my body and my mind and my soul just go to another zone. I marvel at it. Is that either the same or the different?

Beau Lotto: I think there’s tremendous pleasure in the experience of awe . And the question is, you know why? And I think possibly awe is one of the most powerful experiences that we can have.  And I think is because it enables us to go to the place that we all want to do, which is the losing of self – that we actually feel connected to all those things around us. When you’re listening to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, it’s possibly that you stop thinking about you.  And you’re thinking maybe even stop thinking altogether. You’re just experiencing. And if you lost yourself, you’ve become in some sense part of the music, not observer of it.

Phil Stieg: That’s the point.  

Beau Lotto: That’s right.  And I think that’s one of our most powerful perceptions. The irony is so much of our behavior is actually goes against exactly that experience.

Phil Stieg: So do I envision days now where a performer is going to sit in front of a focus group with a bunch of EEG electrodes on their head and they’re going to test their performance to see whether it’s awe inspiring? And are we going there? Is that going to happen?

Beau Lotto: It’s possible, right?  But you wouldn’t want to put someone in a constant state of war because it’s a moment.  You need a ramp up to it. It’s a bit like when you go to a nightclub because I’m sure you go to nightclubs all the time and dancing right with the deejay.  Right?

Phil Stieg: In my spare time. (laugh)

Beau Lotto: That’s right.  And so, as you will know, when the deejay is ramping up the music, he or she is actually building up tension, building up uncertainty. And then at some point they drop the music, they drop the beat, they give you closure. Yeah. And that’s what your brain loves. Is that closure. Right? But the closure only makes sense because it had uncertainty and disorientation before. And Bach’s Brandenburg, he’s constantly taking on a journey. He’s building you up and then he drops you, building you up and dropping you.  So you need that build up in order to have that closure. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. 

Phil Stieg: Obviously, Awe is a good thing.  How often is it good? I mean, in a day, how many or inspiring events should I want?

Beau Lotto: Well, you know, why can’t it be much more often than we think? So I have a wonderful friend, Larry Maloney. He’s a tremendous neuroscientist, professor at NYU, and he supported us on this work. And he said, you know, when the students come through my room into my room, I feel a sense of awe. And I think, why is that? There’s students coming in, he said, “but think about you have trillions of molecules all moving together at the same time and then sitting in a chair.”  And I think, well, when you see it like that, of course, that’s amazing. Right? But what he’s doing is he’s finding the impossible in the common. Again, it’s the way of seeing the world. So it’s I would argue in some sense it’s a choice.  And more than that, it’s always a practice.  That it’s something we choose to do every day, because if we were to do it, it would facilitate a sense of wellness and creativity and compassion and humility.  Right.  But it’s a choice and it’s a practice. 

(musical interlude)

Phil Stieg: Is the sense of awe similar to the sense of creativity?  Thinking about the Cirque du Soleil? I as a watcher, am I just getting totally absorbed because I marvel at the creative moment that I’m seeing?

Beau Lotto: That’s right.  And I think it’s possibly also increasing the connectivity of your brain because you’re diminishing activity in the cortex. Interestingly, what happens in that moment, perceptual and behaviorally, is that you actually become more of a risk taker. You’re more willing to take risk and actually you become better at taking it.  Your need for what’s called “cognitive closure” – put a different way – your desire and willingness to sit within uncertainty, increases. You become more prosocial. You become more open to those people around you. Now, all of which seem really positive, and they are. But it also means that awe can also be weaponized. Right, it means you can actually use it.

Phil Stieg: So explain how it can be weaponized i.e.: bad for us for us, right?

Beau Lotto: Yeah, yeah.  So because effective, you put people into a state of wanting to take risk, becoming connected to all those around them and not needing closure.  Well, now they become susceptible to suggestion.

Phil Stieg: Is that a mob?

Beau Lotto: That could be a mob.  That could be Goebbels during World War Two.  A military parade is actually designed to inspire awe, right?  A lot of soldiers have tremendous experiences of, awe, during battle. It’s not that it’s just happy, wonderful spaces that create awe, you know, it’s when you suddenly, in some sense, your ego diminishes and you feel connected to those things around you. But now you can become susceptible to suggestion.

Phil Stieg: How does our understanding or your understanding of where are we going to apply this?  Of what use is it for us as human beings?

Beau Lotto: I think there are a number of pragmatic uses and there’s more sort of philosophical psychological uses. In other words, from the latter, it could, I think, help people by creating awareness of this. It could engage people and encourage them to change the way their approach to the world to show the value of it. Then we can start thinking about how we could use it useful to you in a utilitarian sense. So we did a series of experiments where we’re looking to see whether we could facilitate toleration towards difference. So we without going through the details of the experiment,  but what we found, we first figured out what really triggers people, a person.  It could be, and very strong political positions or whatever.

Phil Stieg: So that’s individual or is that group?

Beau Lotto: Individual, so it would be for you. What is a read something that you would never move on, i.e. something you would never tolerate.  Right? Something you were intolerant of. In other words, right. Then what we do is we took you through a sequence of experiences.  The initial was an experience of awe and wonder. And what we found is that we could actually increase people’s toleration towards difference. So it could actually be a fundamental component in a process of people coming together to sit with difference, and in some sense you can argue that’s what music does. 

Music is wonderful vehicle for this. We work a lot with musicians.  And when you are sitting in a in a concert, what’s beautiful is not that difference disappears. Difference becomes irrelevant. It’s almost that diversity that makes it a powerful experience, because now you’re embracing the diversity, it’s not everyone becomes the same, you maintain difference, but now you appreciate and celebrate that difference. And I think that’s what those types of artistic musical theatrical experiences, or natural experiences enable us to do.  We transcend the difference, but we maintain it.

Phil Stieg: I was curious when you say that we don’t really see the world, we see our version of the world.  Can you say that when if you had ten people looking at something and they saw the same thing, is that my personal version or is that reality?

Beau Lotto: Well, there is a reality.  There is a physical world. This is not post-modern relativism, it’s just that we don’t see it, nor would it actually be useful to see it. So first of all, you’re  physically separate from that world. And the only information you get from the world is effectively energy that falls on to your different receptors, whether it be photonic energy that falls onto your receptors or sound waves that are going to your ear. And that is just information. But that information doesn’t come with instructions and it also conflates multiple things about the world.  So something that’s small and up-close might project exactly the same dimensions onto your retina, something that’s large and far away. But your brain has no access to that, has no way of knowing other than through that information. So  it has to construct its perceptions through experience. And that experience is unique to you. So when you open your eyes, you generate a perception that was of something that was meaningful in the past to you based on that inherently ambiguous information.  It’s just physics in some sense, right?

Phil Stieg: I presume you’re really questioning the relativity of how each individual sees things.  Well, the relativity, and also what that means in our lives.

Beau Lotto: Mm. Yeah. What’s really important is in my view is, you know, everyone has experienced delusions and often people think, oh well those are just accidents of perception. Right? Usually I see the world accurately, sometimes I get it wrong. But actually that’s not what you illusions tell us. I think illusions are often used in the wrong way to demonstrate sort of the fragility of our senses. In fact, our senses are not fragile. What they reveal is that we evolved to see something else.  We didn’t evolve to see the world accurately. What we evolved to do is to see the world usefully. That’s what evolution gives us. It doesn’t give us accuracy. It gives us what was useful. And what was useful at one point might be useless in another point. So your brain is constantly adapting and redefining normality according to experience and according to context.  

I mean, you can argue that’s one of the reasons why we’re born too soon. Right. Right. Because we are I mean, we’re completely useless when we come into the world. And why? I mean, most other animals, they come into the world and, you know, a horse is running within seconds. You know, it takes us years to get to that point. Well, one argument, of course, and it’s true, is that in order for the brain to get through the birth canal, we have to be born in a certain time.  But it also is because our brain is so plastic at that stage that it means we can adapt to the context in which we’ve been born. It’s one of the reasons why humans are able to inhabit such a diverse range of environments because we adapt into it. And so what’s useful in the desert or useful in the in the outside London is not necessarily useful if you’re in the city. So that’s why your brain is defining the normal of that place. And then it can move to a new place and it can come to a new normal.

Phil Stieg: How quickly does our brain adapt to that new normal?

Beau Lotto: It depends on what it’s adapting to in the age of the person. So what we do know is that your brain remains plastic throughout life. It doesn’t stop. We’re constantly developing in some sense. We’re constantly having the possibility of learning.  Now, there are some aspects of our brain that are more plastic than others. So when babies come into the world, you know, their vision is pretty rubbish and their smell is very acute. They’re tactile is very acute because things are up close and personal. They don’t really have to worry about what’s a distance yet. And then, in time, vision develops and grows. And then location. This is something that remains plastic for all of us.  So it really depends. But also, we so often put ourselves into a world that’s very familiar. So it could be that the plasticity that we see diminishing with age is less about us and more about the world that we inhabit.

Phil Stieg: The one we chose.

Beau Lotto: The ones we create. Why do we create them? Because we like familiarity. So we keep a very familiar world. Well, you don’t have to adapt much to that. You already know what’s going to happen tomorrow and the next week and the next month.

Phil Stieg: We’ll take a pause at this point.  Please join us for part 2 of our discussion with Dr. Beau Lotto.  I’m sure you’ll find it as fascinating as I have.  

(end of part one)