S2 Episode 24: Awestruck! Part Two


Phil Stieg: Hello, in this episode we continue my discussion about perception with Dr. Beau Lotto, professor at the University of London and the founding director of the “Lab of Misfits” a combination design studio and neuroscience lab.  In part one of this episode we learned about the field of perception research, and Beau told us what he has learned about the nature of the state of “Awe” working with the Cirque du Soleil.  In part two, we’ll hear how he is applying his understanding of Awe and perception in a wide variety of settings, including a school in Budapest that encourages every child to think like a scientist.

Phil Stieg: You’ve written about the uncertainty and the anxiety that that creates. And then how do we respond to that anxiety with either anger or curiosity? Can you go into that a little bit?

Beau Lotto: Uncertainty, I would argue, is probably the fundamental challenge that our brain evolved to solve. In fact, I would say that it’s the fundamental challenge of any living system evolved to deal with. And the reason is the information that your brain is receiving is meaningless. It’s potentially useful, but it’s inherently meaningless.  i.e., It’s devoid of any behavioral value. You construct that.  So during evolution, dying was easy, right? In fact, now, you know, easy to die, right? Lots of ways to do it. Right. So, if you couldn’t predict during evolution, you were selected out. So we have a brain that evolved to take what was uncertain and make it certain to take what is unpredictable and make it predictable. The better you are able to predict, the more likely you survived. Almost every behavior we do is an attempt to decrease uncertainty.  So when we face uncertainty, we’re kind of put back into evolutionary history because we’re always looking through the eyes not just of our own personal history, but the history of our ancestors. We’re looking through evolved eyes. We put ourselves back in the state of “now, my life is at jeopardy here” and we experience, as our ancestors did.

Phil Stieg: It seems to me that you’re linking cognitive function – how we deal with uncertainty intellectually – and emotion, the anxiety, fear response to it, or the “gosh, golly, gee, isn’t this interesting?”,  you know, the curious outlook on it.  Those are two separate processes, I think. And how do they play together?

Beau Lotto: Well, there are two different approaches to the same information. The information is uncertain – the question is, what are you going to do with it? And you can panic. Very good idea. The tiger’s facing you, and it’s like the brain saying it’s a bad idea to be here. I don’t care where I am. Just don’t be here. Right.  And your cognition shuts down. It’s like just run. Right. But that would then apply that same strategy when we face a pandemic. So we go “just buy toilet paper. I don’t care. Just go.” Because now I get the illusion that I’m doing something useful. There’s another approach where we could actually say, “well, this is interesting” because of course, the irony is that the only way your brain can ever learn is by not knowing.  It never learns from the place of knowing. Right. You already know it! So it can’t learn anything. It only ever learns when we go to the very place we evolved to avoid, which is the “not knowing”.  And that requires a certain way of being. And that way of being is curiosity. Which begins, I would argue, with awe and wonder. Again, it’s a way of looking at the world.

Phil Stieg: It’s even simpler than that.  I think, you know, in the sense of, you know, when you’re dealing in dealing with those daily stressors and, you know, personally, I was relating to it and I was thinking, you know, I’m operating on an aneurysm and all of a sudden the aneurysm ruptures – and I’ve got 300 cc’s of blood pouring in my face, you know. I can panic or I can go, gosh, isn’t this interesting?  And, you know, take a deep breath, and then figure out how I’m going to get out of this.  That’s got to be true for the way people look at uncertainty in their lives. And obviously, the latter is the more productive way.

Beau Lotto: Yes. You’re activating your prefrontal cortex there, right?

Phil Stieg: Yeah. Yeah.

Beau Lotto: In other words, you’re becoming proactive rather than reactive. You know, and we know that by putting yourself in a position of proactivity, it actually decreases the cortisol levels in your brain, you know, decreases the stress because you feel you have the sense of agency. What’s more, when you are reactive and that moment of uncertainty, your brain becomes what we call in a disempowered state.  You become not only more reactive, you start seeing patterns where no pattern exists. You become more gullible. You become a more extreme version of yourself. If you’re conservative, you become more conservative. If you’re liberal, you become more liberal, because you go to a place of familiarity. The last thing you become is creative.

Phil Stieg: On a practical side. Also, you made me think about there is a movie called “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” where a person was being charged with having murdered somebody and there were ten witnesses that absolutely identified him as the person who did it. And I’m wondering whether you get called to court on a regular basis as an expert witness, because what happened was every one of those witnesses was wrong and he was not guilty.  It’s a true story, it was fascinating. So tell me, how do your studies affect the way we think about our legal system and witnesses?

Beau Lotto: Hmm, interesting question.  The answer is no. I haven’t been asked yet.

Phil Stieg: Lucky you (laugh)

Beau Lotto: And if anything, I’d possibly create more doubt to the situation than anything I’m saying. Saying none of it exists anyway. So the how do we think about the legal system in this regard?

Phil Stieg: Well, I guess let me ask the question a different way. You know, in that scenario where these people, nice people, thought that they saw the person, how does their background, their world existence, their world view affect the way they see things?  And in in actuality, in this case, saw it the wrong way?

Beau Lotto: Yeah. So first of all, they could be foveating. They could be looking at different elements of the scene. Someone might be looking right. Someone might be looking left. Right. They might be looking at different things. And then they will construct a meaning around the thing that they’re attending to. So we think that the whole scene is the same scene. No, your brain actually focuses on different elements of that scene.  So there might have been a traffic accident or something like this. One’s looking at one car, one’s  looking at the other. But we think that they’re actually getting the same information. They’re not – they’re foveating in different elements. The second is that your brain can’t ever make big jumps. It only makes small steps. I can’t get from here to the door without passing through the space in between. So I always make a decision to what we call “the next most likely possible”. Or what that is, is based on my assumptions and biases.  That’s what determines when I’m going to go to next. And your assumptions of biases are different from my right. You might see a person of a certain gender or a certain color, and you’ll have all kinds of biases based on your history and not just your history, your cultural history, the history of your family, the history of your ancestor, all of which become encoded in your brain. So most of your life actually happened without you even there.  You inherit all these experiences.  It’s all these biases, assumptions, but you don’t know you have them. So you get a stimulus. And just like when you hit someone’s patellar tendon, their leg goes out, a stimulus comes in. You generate a perception based on those assumptions, biases, most of what you don’t even know, you have most of what you inherited.

Phil Stieg: So I am a victim of my environment.

Beau Lotto: We are! In some sense, the danger, and the challenge of that is not that we are, is that we don’t think we are.

Phil Stieg: Not that logic plays large in this arena, but I was also thinking about, as you said, awe can be used for mob rule or inciting a crowd and things like that.  Would it be a way to dissect that and then rationally tell individuals that this is why you feel that way? It’s not real and you shouldn’t feel that way or how to think differently about it, i.e. more tolerantly.

Beau Lotto: Yeah.  So when we – we call it the review – when we give people information about themselves. It gives them now agency. That you don’t have choice until you know you have one. Otherwise we think we’re generating perceptions through free will. And I could demonstrate right now that people aren’t experiencing for you already know what they’re going to say or see. And like during these Covid times when people gave a reactionary response with panic, for instance, but they felt like they were being proactive, but they weren’t. They were being reactive. But as soon as you share that with them in a space where not knowing is comfortable, now they have the potential for agency.  They could continue to do what they did before or they could do something different. So attention really isn’t about what you look at. It’s what you look away from.  But you only know to look away from when you know that what you’re looking at is a reflex. Now you have a choice.

Phil Stieg: What can we do for ourselves physiologically to increase the potential for having that awe type of event?  I’m thinking of breathing, relaxation, are there specific things that you notice that people do that that make them more predisposed to having awe like events?

Beau Lotto: Well, there are some aspects that I think – and this would be speculative because we haven’t looked quite yet to the personality profiles and things like those of people who experience more or less.  But I think humility is a very strong component. The willingness to not know. So much of our life, so much of our education system is about knowing. Right. It’s about answers when in fact, the most powerful thing you can do is questions. And asking a good question is really hard. Right? I’d argue that science is about iterating to better questions, but in order to do that, you have to embrace the possibility of not knowing. You have to celebrate  doubt  So someone who is celebrating doubt and celebrating the desire to understand rather than know something is, I think, someone who’s going to see more awe, because they’re more willing to let go of what they thought to be true.

(Musical interlude)

Phil Stieg: Are you doing anything to educate people about the concept of awe?

Beau Lotto: Yes, in fact we are.  And we’re applying a lot of our thinking on perception to the development of a school in Budapest right now. So we created an education program where we explored this idea of science is nothing but play with intention.  When we think about, you know, we hate uncertainty as we were talking about before. And yet the irony is that’s the only place we’re going to go if we’re going to do anything new. So how do we enable people to go there?  Well, evolution gave us an answer. It’s play. And if you had intention to play, you get science. Science is nothing other than play with intention. It’s a space where we actually love uncertainty. Right.  Where we create possibility where what you do where you ask questions and you continue to ask questions and the process of science is to iterate to better and better questions. The problem is in schools, we’re not taught that we’re taught to be sous chefs rather than chefs. Here are the ingredients. Right. Here’s your recipe. You know, and cut it like this. And if it looks like this, when you’re done, you got it right.  Well, then you put them out in the world, basil’s missing. They have no idea what to do because they never knew why basil was there in the first place. Whereas a chef can adapt because he or she knows why it’s there. So they have understanding, not knowing. And that led to the youngest published scientists in the world, our program and the youngest ever, Ted Speaker when she joined me on stage.  So now we’re applying this to create a – turning a school into a lab. It’s a high school. And the whole space will be a lab where kids are going to ask and discover things that no one’s discovered before. And doing so learn things like compassion, creativity and choice and a sense of community.

Phil Stieg: I’m curious about the youngest scientist that published a paper that you’ve worked with. How old is he or she and what was it about?

Beau Lotto: So it was a whole class and there were about twenty five authors on it and they were all eight to ten years old. And the paper was on the perception of bumblebees. Because in my lab we work not just on humans, we also work on bumblebees, we work on artificial intelligence. And bumblebees are wonderful. They can count to five, they can recognize human faces, all kinds of wonderful things.  In this case, the kids came up with their own question, I didn’t give them a question. They came up their own question. They designed the experiments. They wrote it up. So the paper literally starts off once upon a time. It took six months to create it, but took two years to get it published.

Phil Stieg: And I hope it got published in Nature or Lancet or something.

Beau Lotto: Well, Nature wrote an editorial about it.  Science Magazine wrote an editorial about it.  It was published in the Royal Proceedings. And it was, of course, peer reviewed, as they all should. And the figures are in crayon and it was the youngest published scientists. And but the point was not to teach them what science is. The point was for them to become the scientists.  We learn by doing.  But more importantly, it was to put them in a context of asking questions and celebrating the not knowing and then with the desire to create understanding.

Phil Stieg: A great story. A great story.

Beau Lotto: The trick, I think with getting kids involved with science. Too often what we do is we have them watch it. Yeah. We have nothing wrong with participating, of course. And they also we also say, oh well, science is fun.  Well, actually, it’s really hard.  Ask as an Olympic athlete. Right. Playing is really hard when you do it well.

Phil Stieg: Doing anything well is hard. And people need to understand that, you know, unfortunately in America, you know, you turn the TV on change station, you get gratified. So the think I’m going to play tennis, I’m going to go play well, no, sorry doesn’t happen that way.

Beau Lotto: The irony, though, is that when we do those things well, when we’re actively involved in your brain, actively understand something and it literally expands itself, we get a remarkably powerful intrinsic reward.  Your brain actually evolved to get reward for adapting. And yet, in some sense we evolve to be sort of Facebook watching couch potatoes. Right. Because expending energy doing evolution was a bad idea.

Phil Stieg: I would submit that the act of achieving whatever they thought about is a sense of awe because you get that utter satisfaction  in the process and all of a sudden it’s, ah-ha, I did that, you know.

Beau Lotto: That’s right. And that “ah-ha” almost always creates more questions, I think, about when you’re in a dinner party. Right. Eight people around the table.  And people will be giving information and be interesting, this, that and the other. Now notice that someone will ask a question and everyone stops and they’ll say, oh, I never thought of it like that. Suddenly the whole conversation expands.  All the answers are actually contracting the conversation. But the question suddenly expands and everyone stops and now they walk away differently. And it’s the power of the question.  It’s the power of not knowing

Phil Stieg: And the willingness to be uncertain and try to expound on your thoughts.

Beau Lotto: Hence the importance of the party, of the culture of that environment where not knowing is good. Yeah, right. In businesses we try to maximize efficiency and in nature, the great environment for maximizing  efficiency is competition a really bad idea if you’re trying to get people to be creative and ask questions.

Phil Stieg: I believe that I believe what you say, that people don’t like uncertainty. But they do like purpose. How do we achieve that?

Beau Lotto: So what’s really interesting is we did an experiment just recently asking if our purpose is the same in relation to uncertainty.  We asked people on your deathbed, when you’re looking back, what do you want to see? Give us one word. What you want to see is it is it meaningful?  Is it happy? You know, what is it? Most people, far majority of people said happy. Their purpose was happiness – the pursuit of happiness. It’s in the American constitution, the right to pursue happiness. And then we ask people, think about 2020. What did 2020 mean to you?  We did that around what’s called seven and 12 different dimensions like stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness, growth, humility, et cetera, as a proxy towards uncertainty, because 2020 is very uncertain for almost everybody, right? Then we asked which purpose people who pursued, which purpose did better in 2020?  What we found is the people who pursued happiness did the least well know they experienced the least joy, the most anxiety, the most loneliness.  Almost everything that was positive went down and almost everything negative went up. And what’s more, the alignment between their purpose in life and their behavior became increasingly desperate. But those who pursued authenticity did the best.

Phil Stieg: If you asked me, I would answer meaning – I want to have meaning in my life.

Beau Lotto: Yeah. Meaningfulness. And you could argue that meaningfulness and also authenticity, which is I’d say the pursuit of truth. Those people did the best. So, their happiness actually increased far greater than those who actually pursue happiness.  In fact to pursue happiness is one of the least things you could do to get happiness. You get happiness by pursuing something else.

Phil Stieg: Yeah, saying happiness to me means it implies a self-absorption.  You know, it’s about me. And I wouldn’t want that to be the view of myself.

Beau Lotto: Exactly. And this this comes back to awe and wonder, right? Because the pursuit of happiness is very self-motivated, whereas awe, is very much not about the self. You lose the self.  And that when we lose that sense of self is one of our greatest perceptions. What’s more, happiness is very much dependent on others, whereas the pursuit of authenticity and self-honesty is a function of “I can do that. I don’t need other people to do that. I don’t need a context to do that.  I can remain truthful in any context. Can I remain happy in any context?” Hmmm?.  Which is possibly why we have so many self-help books to help people get through happiness, because we don’t really know the mechanism to get there. But, you know, the mechanism of authenticity is pretty straightforward. Just be honest –  or at least try and pursue it. And by the way, the best person reveal to you is usually not you. It’s usually someone else.

Phil Stieg: Beau Lotto, it’s been absolutely delightful having this time with you, talking about your area of expertise – awe, but more importantly, how we as individuals deal with uncertainty and questioning in life.  Thank you for being with us.

Beau Lotto: Thank you so much for the invitation.