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Episode 54: Thinking Through Uncertainty with Neuroscientist Beau Lotto



Continuing on with our Alchemy Series (sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential) our hosts Erik and Dave speak with a world-renowned expert in perception, Dr. Beau Lotto. Beau’s perspective during these particularly uncertain times explains how our brain is built for adaptability and evolution. We’ve encountered perilous times before and our brain is equipped to handle change and risk. His research explores the ways in which we experience the world through our own versions of reality. As Beau puts it, “the brain never sees the world as it actually is, only the world that is useful to see.” By illuminating these principles of perception, he has helped individuals and companies transform their approach to creativity and innovation.

Beau is a three-time main stage TED speaker. He has spoken at the G8, Google’s Zeitgeist, Wired, Oslo Freedom Forum, Big Think, and contributed to the BBC, National Geographic, Netflix, and PBS.

Beau is also the founder of the world’s first neuro-design studio, Lab of Misfits. Part lab, part creative studio, Lab of Misfits takes a disruptive approach to research, partnering with brands to blend science, art, and performance to explore pivotal principles in current culture. Their “experiential experiments” invite consumers to engage with brands and offer brands science-backed insights that foster innovation.

Previous and current Lab of Misfits partnerships includes Cirque du Soleil (awe and wonder), L’Oreal (empowerment), The Charles Koch Institute (tolerance), BCW Public Relations (insight), and The London Science Museum (curiosity).

Beau’s latest book, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, explores the surprising science of creativity and unveils the unexpected relationship between perception, reality, and innovation.

Additional Resources:

» Hear an extended version of our interview with Beau here.


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Episode Transcript

Beau Lotto: That is a fundamental aim of the brain, is continually redefining our melody. It's constantly adapting, but what's powerful is that you can have agency in the direction of your adaptability. Understanding perception and becoming aware of how and why I perceive what I do in general and in particular suddenly gives you the possibility of choice.

Erik Weihenmayer: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means, and part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way, and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.

Speaker 4: Today's conversation is with Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist and world renowned expert in perception. His research explores the ways in which we experience the world through our own versions of reality. As Beau puts it, "The brain never sees the world as it actually is, only the world that is useful to see." Beau is a three time main stage TED speaker, and is the founder of the world's first neuro design studio called Lab of Misfits, part lab, part creative studio Lab of Misfits takes a disruptive approach to research, partnering with brands to blend science, art, and performance, to explore pivotal principles in current culture. Enjoy the conversation.

Speaker 5: Welcome to our new, weekly, No Barriers podcast series, where we continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives while remaining true to the theme that we've always emphasized here. What's within you is stronger than what's in your way. Special thanks to Prudential and Wells Fargo for their support of this podcast series. Well, Eric, welcome back. Another great conversation today.

Erik Weihenmayer: Dr. Beau Lotto, hey, good morning here in Colorado, but evening there in the UK, I know. So welcome to our No Barriers podcast. And I'm so lucky that I got to meet you and pulled you into our podcast because I know people will benefit from your story and all the things that you've researched and can illuminate for us right now.

Beau Lotto: Well, it's great to be here and whether or not I can illuminate, I think ... I hope to be illuminated at the same time.

Speaker 5: I love your talks. Can you just give our listeners an example of the gap between how our brains are wired for this historical view of the world and the reality, just kind of make it really concrete. You have so many good examples from your talks.

Beau Lotto: So one of the things we're experiencing right now is this tremendous sense of uncertainty, but uncertainty is something that it happens every second of every day. We've evolved to deal with uncertainty. That's the beauty of the brain, which is that's evolved to evolve, is adapted to adapt. One of the things that the brain does is it's continually redefining normality. People talk about this new normal. And in my talks, I talk about how that is a fundamental aim of the brain is continually redefining our melody. It's constantly adapting, but what's powerful is that you can have agency in the direction of your adaptability. And so when you ask what's one of the key steps we can do to deal with the panic we might be feeling it's awareness, it's awareness that you're doing it and understanding why you're doing it. Understanding is remarkably powerful, because choice only really happens when you know you have it. When you're conscious, you become aware, conscious of not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it. So often we are reflexively generating behaviors that are grounded in our assumptions and biases and much of which we inherited, they weren't even constructed by us. And then our brain tells us a post-hoc narratives say, "Well, the reason why I did that was this." And so we have this illusion of sort of that conscious intention, but that's often just an illusion. It's only in being aware that you're actually reflexively responding that you have the possibility of changing that reflex. So, the first step is just to become aware that that's what's happening. And so that's why understanding perception and becoming aware of how and why I perceive what I do in general and in particular suddenly gives you the possibility of choice.

Speaker 5: I think it's super hard for individuals. Let's say you lost your job as millions and millions of Americans have recently lost their jobs, or you had a loved one that you lost. How do you have that ability in the midst of pretty big challenges in your life to pause and reflect on your response when you're all caught up in the moment?

Beau Lotto: Yeah. I mean, it's a tremendous question and it's actually an exercise. It's a practice. This is not something that you suddenly just switch on. It's like lifting weights. Your brain is like a muscle, it's not literally a muscle, but it's like a muscle. You use it till you lose it. Okay. And so this is a practice that's in that moment ... that's, actually, you could argue the moment when you have actual freedom, actual choice, because what your brain is going to do is going to look at the obvious. It's going to focus and attend on it's always done before on those past reflexive meetings, that's what it's going to do. And there's nothing wrong with that in the sense that it's very natural, but it's in that moment you have the possibility of attending a way from the obvious. So if you're driving down the road, if your listeners are driving down the road and, we've all experienced it, we're driving down the road, we're in a traffic jam. And yet the accident is in the opposite direction. Why on earth am I in a traffic jam? And it's because everybody is looking. They're looking at the obvious because we attend to shiny objects, we attend to high contrast right. Now, try not attending to it, try attending away from it. Allow noise, so many whispers your voice in the far corner, you attend to it. It's hard not to. So yes, when that moment and you're completely overwhelmed, it's in that moment that you have the possibility not of doing something else, but of just stopping, of pausing, right? The first step to go from A to B is not B. The first step is to go from A, to not A. And it's not to not feel the feeling, is to try to not attach the meaning to the feeling that you attached before. It's a crazy idea to say, if something terrible or sad has happened, Oh, don't feel the terrible, sad thing. That would be delusional. Feel it, but try not to attach the meaning to it that I'm a bad person, I caused this, et cetera. Let yourself feel the feeling. And then through behavior, you try to change the meaning of that feeling. And then, the next step is to try to be proactive, to have agency in where you're going to go. You can choose what to attend to. You can look away, you can attend away from the obvious. What you don't have control over is where are you going to go from there, but then what you can do is create an environment that creates the possibility of going to a new place.

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah. We work with a lot of veterans and when I lead groups in the mountains, inevitably you have a lot of folks with trauma. They've had trauma. So, their behavior and their sort of perceptions are so ingrained. And you always see one of the vets in the beginning of the process, trying to what I call, blow things up. They're like, "Oh gosh, this isn't going to work out for me. I'd already know it. So I might as well blow it up like right now, so I don't get crushed and get my hopes and expectations too far here. I'm going to blow it up so I can just be familiar with my past patterns." Does that make sense?

Beau Lotto: That makes complete sense because if we ... I personally think the fundamental challenge of the brain and of any living system is dealing with uncertainty. We hate uncertainty. Almost every behavior we do is an attempt to decrease it. There are only certain contexts in which we actually seek to increase uncertainty, which we can talk about. So, to step into uncertainty is a very scary place because during evolution dying was easy, staying alive, that's what was hard, because there are more ways of dying than staying alive. As soon as you become uncertain, you've literally statistically increased the probability of death. If everything was fine, you had your roof over your head and you had your food and you had your family and a fire, what a stupid idea to go see what's on the other side of the hill, right? You would have just literally increased the probability of dying. So, we engineer life for familiarity because familiarity is safe. The irony is that, of course, if we only stay safe, we never adapt, we never evolve, we never change, we can never innovate. We're kind of caught in this place where I want familiarity because that's safe and it increases the chances of surviving and I'll engineer my whole environment around it. Companies do this, businesses do this. They're creative once. And then they try to maximize efficiency. And then that's a great idea if the world never changed, but as we are experiencing now in a very extreme way, the world does change. And so, you have to change with it, so do you actually have to go see what's on the other side of that hill?

Erik Weihenmayer: You know, you hear on this pop psychology, you're supposed to love change, you're supposed to love uncertainty. People are always with me they're like, when I'm starting these processes like going out and kayaking or learning to climb or something, new project. They're like, "Oh, you just forge into the great unknown." [inaudible] "No way. I'm freaking terrified." I hated it the time. I look back and I think, "Okay, I'm proud of the way I kept going and was resilient, but at the time I am not having a great time."

Beau Lotto: No. Absolutely. I completely agree with you.

Erik Weihenmayer: Why is it so important that we adapt? I mean, what's the result of being adaptable in our lives and in the world?

Beau Lotto: When your brain is more adaptable, you have the increased probability of thriving, but it's also the nature of the way of being that's adaptable, that also facilitates your wellness. For instance, if you feel you're more adaptable, your fear of uncertainty will decrease because you feel like you will be able to be agile to something that you haven't experienced before. So your cortisol levels will go down, for instance. Now, cortisol is a hormone that gets increased when we are stressed. A lot of people right now are experiencing high levels of cortisol, which is also affecting their dreams, by the way. People now are experiencing very strong dreams. And it's because your brains are now in a sort of a constant level of low level panic. Cortisol levels are elevated. Respiratory rates are high, et cetera. Okay? So when that stays high for a long period of time, cortisol in particular, then what happens is your immune system actually starts deteriorating. You become more susceptible to illness, and if you get an illness, the response will be stronger. That's the last thing we want right now, your brain cells can actually start withering and dying. Your creativity goes down, you become a more extreme version of yourself. If you're liberal, you become liberal. If you're conservative, you become conservative. Why? Because you're going to a place of familiarity. You're trying to get certainty. You also become more gullible, which is why we see one consequence of a disempowered brain is you start seeing patterns where no pattern exists. The illusions that I make on my website, they actually get stronger. That's why we're experiencing more conspiracy theories. Why? Because people are trying to find patterns because they're trying to find certainly. When you have a disempowered brain, you need certainty so much that you'll start grasping and you'll start finding relationships that don't actually exist. If you become adaptable, that way of being, of being adoptable increases the possibility of thriving.

Speaker 5: Well, Beau I'd love to finish coming back to kind of this present moment in our lives for those listeners who are still kind of caught up in the moment of all this uncertainty and how to manage it, what's some real practical advice for how to get started on a path towards making progress, with getting comfortable with the uncertainty?

Beau Lotto: This is a great question, but the first one is again, to understand that what you're experiencing is natural. It's normal, it's okay, but you can also have agency over it. You can become proactive rather than reactive. And we can come proactive in things that actually ... for instance, physical health. Some practical solutions. Not solutions, but practical ways of experiencing is that you see people, especially at the beginning, rushing to the grocery store to fill their physical pantries, mainly with toilet paper? What was that about? And that was about trying to find certainty. That was about trying to exhibit some element of an empowered brain, which means I have control over my fate. And so that's unconsciously what people were trying to do, getting a sense of control in a situation for which there was little, because what we're experiencing for many people for the very first time, for biologists and for yourself, we are fundamentally interconnected. It can't be different. That is biology. That is life. And that realization can be very scary for people because it means that their life doesn't just belong to them. It means that they are not in complete control of their fate. It means someone else can affect them. Now we have some thing else that they can't even see that can have an effect on their body, that they have no control over. So when people are panicking, going up, filling their pantries, my suggestion is ... because they're getting prepared, prepare your body, the probability in time of getting infection is probably relatively high for everybody given enough time. So a body that is physically prepared for that is more likely to do better. So, prepare your physical self, exercise your respiratory system, exercise your heart, go out walking, go out exercising, being proactive in that sense will also decrease your cortisol because it will give you a sense that you're being proactive in the world, that you have some element of control. Basically it's activate your prefrontal is the message.

Speaker 5: Yeah. Well, Beau, tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about your work.

Beau Lotto: They can go to a number of places. The main destination is the labofmisfits.com. And we created a new section on the site, which is called Community. And in that we are now creating a series of not just blogs, but content on thriving on uncertainty. And then, we have Instagram and the other usual channels.

Speaker 5: And as always, listeners, you can go to our show notes at nobarrierspodcast.com to access all the things that Beau just mentioned to find out more and learn more. Beau, it's been a real pleasure to talk to you and learn from you. Thank you so much for your time today.

Erik Weihenmayer: Thank you.

Beau Lotto: Thank you so much for the invitation. It's always great to see you, Erik, and see you as well, so-

Erik Weihenmayer: Awesome.

Beau Lotto: Wonderful.

Speaker 5: Well, Erik, what did you hear from today's conversation that stood out for you?

Erik Weihenmayer: So many of the pioneers, the thought leaders that we've interviewed have started with awareness. And man, I learned this when I was kayaking... You're on the surface of the river and you're experiencing all of this energy getting knocked around, but really the energy is coming from the very bottom of the river. It's like the currents hitting rocks and going over drops. And it's so far down there. And I mean, essentially, in my way, that's what Beau has been studying, how to dive into the brain and understand what's going on inside of us. And again, a big part of it is not going through the world, "blind", but actually diving in and being aware of your perception of the world and yourself and the way that your senses work. And all of that is just so, for me, illuminating.

Speaker 5: Yeah. So true. Well, again, listeners, nobarrierspodcast.com is where you can find today's show notes. If you are interested in joining No Barriers for our upcoming No Barriers Summit, we've had to move that virtual, but we're pretty excited about the experience we've created. You can learn more at nobarrierssummit.org and join us live June 26th, 27th. If you can't make it those dates we'll have virtual recordings of everything and ways for you to access it, but it's going to be an extraordinary celebration of the power of the human spirit to transcend what we're facing right now in our lives. So thank you all for listening and we'll catch you next time.

Erik Weihenmayer: No barriers.

Speaker 4: The production team behind this podcast includes Senior Producer, Pauline Shaffer; Executive Producer, Didrik Johnck; sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman; graphics by Sam Davis; and marketing support by Megan Lee and Karly Sandsmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.



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