Dr Beau Lotto is a globally renowned neuroscientist whose studies in human perception have taken him well beyond the scientific domain and into the fields of education, the arts and business. Public engagement, in the broadest sense, is at the core of what Beau does – whether he’s creating scientific experiments, giving talks or making TV programmes. By enabling people to experience what it is to be a scientist, Beau’s aim is to encourage them to see science not as an academic investigation but as a way of being that is relevant to every aspect of their lives: this discovery can be powerful enough to make people think differently about both themselves and the world around them. Beau believes passionately in the potential impact of his work on corporate innovation and creativity, and to this end his company, Lottolab Ltd, has teamed up with Purpose, one of London’s most innovative branding consultancies.
Beau’s scientific research, carried out both in the US and the UK (he is attached to UCL), is based on a deep and fundamental interest in human beings. It is also influenced by a strong artistic instinct and a boldness of vision. Beau has always looked outside the lab environment in order to collaborate with those who share his interest in exploring different ways of seeing – and doing – things, be they scientists, artists, musicians, educationalists, designers or entire businesses. As a result his domain is as much a creative studio as a lab, whose output ranges from art installations and visual illusions to workshops designed for corporate leaders. There’s not a lab coat in sight.
Beau’s ambitious ideas about the relevance of science to ordinary people have taken him to places where few other scientists have ventured – including into exhibition space inside the world’s best-known Science Museum, in London, where Lottolab was resident from 2010–12. While at the museum, Lottolab pushed public engagement in science to new levels by involving the public directly in experiments. Beau’s education programme led to the publication of the first-ever, peer-reviewed scientific paper written by schoolchildren (Blackawton Bees, published by the Royal Society).
The potential impact of Beau’s work on corporate innovation and creativity has been recognised by branding consultant, Purpose Ltd, with which Lottolab is now collaborating. This partnership is currently developing several experiential products, including an interactive ‘digital tree’ in a prime London location; an augmented reality social network (in development in Silicon Valley); and, in collaboration with the Peter Baumann Foundation in San Francisco, a pop-up laboratory cum night club/cabaret – a format that Lottolab explored with great success during its Lates events at the Science Museum in London.
His experimentalist, visionary approach to science is winning Beau Lotto an ever wider public audience; he has made significant contributions to two episodes of the BBC’s Horizon programme, filmed two programmes with National Geographic Channel and is currently working with PBS in the United States. One journalist suggested that Beau could do as much good for the public appreciation of science as Jamie Oliver has done for our appreciation of food and cooking. And Beau is in increasing demand as a speaker. He has given two TED talks, a relatively rare honour, which have had more than 1.6 million online viewers combined, and has been invited to speak at one of Google’s Zeitgeist events in 2013.
Beau is in increasing demand as a speaker. He has given two TED talks, a relatively rare honour, which have had more than 1.6 million online viewers combined, and has been invited to speak at one of Google’s Zeitgeist events in 2013. He is an inspiring and motivational speaker and uses illusions, games and interaction to engage his audience.
There are two aspect to innovation: efficiency and creativity. I.e. the ability to create novel solutions to a meaningful problem and ability to realise that solution. Indeed, innovation is itself inherent in both of these processes. In recent decades we focused – at times almost exclusively – to efficiency. Billions of dollars are spent every year by companies – and indeed individuals – in a never ending attempt to get more for less. And there’s actually good biological evidence to say that this is a good thing: In nature if two animals are set the same challenge, the one that deals with it most efficiently is also the one that is most likely to survive. If a bus is coming at you, well … you want to get out of the way as fast (i.e. efficiently) as possible. You don’t want to say … ‘ … hmmm … I wonder if there’s a different way of seeing this …’. But … is everything an oncoming bus? If you look at the world around you, we behave as if it is. But without ideas, there will be increasingly less to ‘efficientise’. Without creativity, one cannot have innovation. But we know from behavioural neuroscience that the requirements of creativity are different. They require questions, not answers, collaboration not competition, noise not sterility. This is not to say that creativity is – as most assume – a mysterious, messy and serendipitous process. That leap of faith, that ability to bring together two highly disparate ideas, is an apt description from the outside. But from the inside … there is nothing all that creative about creativity. It’s a wholly logical process. The challenge, then, is not practical but emotional, since creativity requires stepping into a place that the human brain hates to be: uncertainty. Hence, the biggest barrier to innovation is fear and blindness. But fortunately, evolution has given us an answer to uncertainty. Indeed, there is only one human endeavour where uncertainty is a good thing. Here, we will discuss what that one thing is … and by the next greatest innovation isn’t an external technical but an internal state of being.
Change is at the heart of any campaign. In the case of politics, those currently in power emphasise stability, whereas those seeking power argue for change. But, there is no inherent value in either. Whether change is good or bad is – like everything else in life = context-dependent. Here, using principles in behavioural and perceptual neuroscience, we’ll explore those different contexts in order to discover what lives at the heart of change; why it’s often essential for success but equally the most feared of human activities. Indeed, to ask questions, especially ‘why?’, is – historically – dangerous. Which is why government organisation, businesses, religions and – ironically – our education systems are designed to reduce the risk of question-asking. There is one principle reason for this: All revolutions (and revelations) begin with a joke (i.e. ” … you mean it could be different from this …? “). We’ll see how and why questions and metaphor are mediators of change; why most questions are useless, since they don’t confront the most difficult barriers to change; and how change – when properly pursued – has no direction or goal. Change is a way of being that is fostered by one’s external, but also one’s internal environment. Which means change is personal and – when properly considered – inevitable.
What is education for? When you watch children in most schools, it’s not obvious. Most it seems is a history lesson. Or at best a place to memorise and reiterate. This is because school largely is in the service of society and what it thinks is important. And much of our society is driven by the world of business and government targets. Because those worlds are motivated by efficiency, so too is our education curricula. And because the best route to efficiency is competition – which is also true in the natural world, again so too is education. But the world is changing – indeed it has changed. It is now more complex and uncertain than it ever has been before. And we know from nature that to succeed in increasingly uncertain worlds, one needs to know how to adapt, to find solutions to questions that haven’t been asked yet. Indeed to know how to ask and identify good questions. Doing so is at the basis of creativity. But increasingly creativity isn’t just for the arts; it’s a way of being that underpins innovation in all walks of life. But in our current system designed for remembering not thinking, we are losing a key skill that has enabled the human species to be so successful in its evolution: the ability to adapt. So how do we teach children creativity, adaptability – how do we teach them a way of being that enables not just knowing but understanding? Here using the neuroscience of perception, we will answer these questions, and will provide a concrete example in the world of science education where children became the youngest published scientists in history.
What makes a good leader? When asked this question of a diverse audience, I’ll receive many, many different possible qualities that are ‘essential’. And yet, there are only three such descriptions that correlate with the success of a company. What are they and why do they matter? Here we will address these questions from the perspective of behavioural neuroscience, and consider a new answer: the quality of a leader is defined by how he/she leads others into uncertainty.
Arguably one of the most dangerous things one can experience in life is doubt. During evolution, if your ancestors weren’t sure whether that ‘thing over there’ was a predator, well … it would have been too late. Resolving uncertainty is the fundamental problem that your brain evolved to solve. Thus, when presented with doubt, we hate it … and are genetically programmed to do so: Sea-sickness, and indeed most of our mental health problems being direct manifestations of our fear. The deep irony, however, is that anything interesting begins with a question. So taking the risk to step into uncertainty is an essential aspect of adaptation, which we know is at the root of success in all natural systems. What’s more, nature also tells us when it’s best to risk uncertainty. Here we discuss how and why everything is uncertain, and natures solution to it.
We do not exist in isolation, but in relationship to our world. The most essential aspect of that world is other people. Our relationships become meaningful according to the narrative of those relationships: the more nuanced, creative and personal the narrative, the more valuable it is and thus the stronger is the relationship. Imagine instead having a narrative that described another as the average man or woman. Not surprisingly, it’s not going to work out very well. It’s knowing how others deviate from the average which defines how well you know them. Branding is nothing more than telling stories that foster relationships. But brands treat people as the average, hence their stories do not foster what they truly need – indeed anyone needs, which is value, meaning and loyalty. Understanding the mechanisms and principles of behavioural neuroscience that enable relationships to start, as well as the relationships that enable them to be maintained (which are not the same mechanisms) is essential to any brand. And key to this is authenticity. So how can brands be authentic? How can they understand themselves and communicate that to their audience? These are the questions with which we will engage.
There is no inherent value in any piece of data because all information is meaningless in itself. Why? Because information doesn’t tell you what to do. This is true even at the most fundamental level of our senses: seeing light. As such, resolving the uncertainty of information is what the brain evolved to do. Which means it never actually sees information in any direct sense, or even patterns therein. Instead we construct meaning from information according to our history of experience. And it’s that historical meaning that we see, experience and know. Here we’ll discuss – and experience – the underlying challenges that the brain has in discovering new relationships … and hence why innovation remains so elusive to most. We’ll explore how to see new meaning in data that has always been there, but remained hidden. In short, we’ll explore how to discover within not only new spaces of information, but more importantly spaces that we thought we had fully explored.
In the words of Bob Dylan: “He who is not busy being born is busy dying”. What is true of an individual is true of any organisation, company and/or government. To live is to innovate. But how?! Using perceptual and behavioural neuroscience, we will explore what innovation really is, identify the two most fundamental barriers to achieving it and the framework that enables innovation in any organisation. We will consider innovation from a neuroscientific perspective because it’s our brain that underpins everything we know, think, feel and believe, from our deepest fears to our most creative inventions. Indeed, innovation operates using the same processes that the brain evolved to contend with the most fundamental challenge of the natural world. The day will last 4 to 6 hours depending on discussion, and will be less workshop and more lab, in that we will not only present and discuss information, but offer experiences that enable you to embody the ideas presented. By the end you’ll leave with an embodied understanding of essential nature of innovation.
The route to innovation, leadership and learning.
Our personal and cultural histories define perception, from our most insightful social innovations … to our most abstract thoughts that guide our personal decisions. This is because experience – both personal and shared – shapes your brain … literally. And since the structure of your brain determines what you see, it’s never possible to see the ‘information’ in front of you directly (which has no inherent meaning anyway). Instead, you only ever see the past behavioural significance (or ‘meaning’) of that information. In other words, we only see what was useful to see before.
But if what I see now is a response grounded in the past, how can I ever ‘see differently’ in the future? Fortunately the neuroscience of perception – and indeed evolution itself – offers us an answer to this question. In short, the answer lies in understanding how the brain resolves its most fundamental challenge: uncertainty.
The issue with uncertainty is that we are deathly afraid of it … and for good reason. When our ancestors paused because they weren’t sure that the thing in front of them was a predator … well it was too late. Those that paused were selected out, resulting in our brains that evolved take what is inherently uncertain and make it certain … quickly. Thus, certainty is a deep survival need, and uncertainty the cause of most contemporary social and emotional pathologies. Which means the the next greatest innovation is not going to be an external technology, but an internal way of seeing and doing. In short, fear not efficiency is the biggest barrier to success.
Changes that leads to innovation, leadership and learning all require letting go of certainty. Thus, understanding the relationship between uncertainty, experience and brain plasticity in creating perception is essential to understanding the principles of behavioural change … and why change is so difficult. Without this awareness, the ability to innovate, lead and learn will be limited, since at the core of these most essential and creative human behaviours is the ability to ‘see differently’ … to live with intention.
As a neuroscientist who studies how the brain evolved to resolve uncertainty at the physiological, personal and social levels, my aim is to transform our understanding of change through discovery: It’s only through discovery that we embody the understanding that leads to resilience … i.e. the ability to share and adapt knowledge to your own social and personal context. To this end, in collaboration with behavioural scientists, producers and designers, we have created a one-day lab (not a workshop) for collective discovery. The lab assumes that your future success is more a function of the questions you ask – not the answers to derive. You (and we) will question whether creativity is in fact a mysterious, messy process irrelevant to business and education. We’ll explore why the three most important qualities of leadership involve uncertainty … and why ‘seeing differently’ is essential to succeeding in all aspects of the contemporary society.
The day will last 5 to 7 hours (depending on discussions). We will focus on the experiential, through a combination of formal presentation, open discussion and participatory experimentation. The experiments will be literal i.e., they are not demonstrations. Rather than a how-to-guide that offers only a superficial translation of information, we will discover together and thus embody the knowledge we discovered. At the end, you will have a renewed sense of wonder, motivation and understanding that are the essential tools to see differently (though – whether in a corporate, educational or governmental context – seeing differently is ultimately a personal choice).
Creating compelling new narratives for customers
Beau brings together the latest knowledge in neuroscience, behavioural science and design thinking to offer a new way of looking at customer and client behaviours. He pioneers understanding of perception and applies it to create transformational experiences. The world is changing at pace and that for many companies this creates the need for constant innovation. Only in this way can they stay relevant, stay ahead and stay in business. The fuel for innovation is seeing differently and thinking differently. This is what Beau does, he helps businesses to see and think differently.
At the centre of Beau’s different world-view is the belief that you need to ask good questions to elicit transformational answers. But what is a ‘good’ question? And why – fundamentally – does it enable change? Good questions stimulate creativity and create compelling new narratives for our brains to adopt in order to think (and behave) differently. The argument requires an intuitive shift in corporate thinking, which typically looks for answers that improve efficiency.
Beau’s style is entertaining and informative, he explains WHY and not just HOW. He is interactive and gathers live data throughout his presentation.
a. One-hour or less through stage performance (small to large groups)
b. More than one-hour format for smaller groups where the format is more lab than workshop
Why don’t we see the world as it is?
Seeing the world is not only impossible, but pointless. First, objects don’t tell you how to behave, nor how they are necessarily useful. The significance of anything in the world is a function of its context. Take, for instance, water. Of course it has constraints. But those constraints aren’t aways what we think they are. E.g. you might not think you could build a house with water. But of course you can with water below a certain temperature (i.e. an igloo). What’s more, water has vastly different behavioural meanings for different animals depending on its size, lifestyle, etc. And even for a single animal (especially primates), its potential functions of vastly multifarious. Furthermore, and more importantly, our brain has no direct access to the world other than through our senses. What’s important about our senses is that they don’t sense things in the world directly – only the energy they emit / reflect / share. E.g. our eyes don’t see a surface directly, but rather it only senses the light reflected from that surface. This creates a tremendous – and fundamental – problem. Sticking with the example of surfaces, since the light hitting the surface can change (actually it can change in intensity a billion-to-one), it means the information the brain receives from any surface is constantly changing. Even more confusing is that different surface can actually reflect the same amount of light to the eye (e.g. a bright surface in dark light vs a dark surface in bright light).
Point: We can’t literally see the world … we’ve no access to it. What’s more, the information that the world gives us is itself meaningless, since it could mean anything.
Do you believe we can train ourselves to be truly creative, even as adults?
Yes … we can train ourselves to be creative … but not formulaically. This is because the source of creativity is a way of being. In other words, it’s a framework from which creative methods manifest, not the method itself. Similarly, a metaphor isn’t creative, but the ability to find / create metaphors is. In short the most essential aspect of creativity is one’s approach to life; how one engages with life should vary depending on the problem at hand, but the principle behind the engagement is the same. This is why the aim of my talks is to raise the awareness of what that way of being need be. In other words to explain WHY we are creative, WHY creativity isn’t actually creative at all, WHY seeing differently is the source of creativity and WHY the fear of uncertainty is its engine … rather than the usual approach of WHAT is creativity; WHO is creative and WHAT are they like? WHERE is one creative, etc. While the latter can create information, information is not generalisable without a deeper understanding of the question why! To answer why is to create understanding from which one can answer their own how / what / where / when questions. If you just give someone a method, they’ve no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, and as such they’ll simply reapply the same process to others conflicts / challenges / questions when in fact the method itself should be questioned and adapted.
Are there certain questions we should be asking ourselves about our perceived reality?
Yes and no. If a bus is coming towards you, best stepping out of the way rather than whether there’s a different way of seeing it. The problem is that we live our lives as if everything is a bus. Hence, we focus on process and efficiency. The real wisdom is in knowing what’s a bus and what isn’t, and in understanding that in some instances the best route to efficiency is itself creativity. Alter the context the efficient process I’m applying may no longer be relevant. This is the typical failing of many business / organisations. They – through a creative process – discover an efficient solution to a problem. But because they don’t understand WHY the solution worked, or because they incorrectly assume that a new problem looks ‘similar’ to the old one, they continue to use the same ‘efficient’ method – ie. they try to solve a problem using a method for which the method wasn’t meant to solve. But because of fear of challenging what they assume to be correct (‘method 1 is efficient’), they hold onto it rather than question it. In this sense, we frequently want to question what we assume to be true already. It’s in asking this question that is both the most dangerous but also where there is likely to be the biggest paradigm shift – without being able to predict the direction of that shift.
What are the aims of the change lab project that you are working on at UCL?
Change is to step from (perceive) certain to known uncertainty. Fundamental to who we are is to understand our approach to uncertainty. Thus, the aim of the change lab is two-fold: 1. To discover the principles of change, and 2. by making others an integral part of the process of discovery. The point of the latter is to foster a more empathetic view of oneself and others.
How do you see the future of science education?
The current UK government’s curriculum, which they suggest is a radical change in science education, does not teach children anything about what science really is. They mistakenly think the object of discovery is science. They also mistakenly conflate the core of science with its more superficial process / methodology. While of course the scientific method is essential, and while of course what we’ve discovered is important, what is at the core of good science is neither of these. Rather, science is a way of being. Indeed, it’s the only human endeavour that celebrates uncertainty, diversity, collaboration and is intrinsically motivating (i.e., it is its own reward). These principles of science are also the same values that define play. Hence … science can actually be reframed as play itself. Which means experiments are nothing more than games. The aim in reframing science in this way isn’t to bring people (young and old) to science by ‘making it fun’ – because science is actually very difficult (as is anything done well). Rather, the future of science education is to give children the skills to become adaptable, since being adaptable we be the core of their well-being and success in the future.
You are working with Purpose on the first neuro-design lab, ‘The Beautiful Mind’. This sounds a very exciting project. How can you offer brands a new way of looking at customer and client behaviour?
Branding aims to create a strong relationship with an audience through meaningful narratives. Essential to this relation, then, is authenticity, trust and bonding. The problem is that most brands don’t know how the brain actually creates relationships, or how social bonds are maintained. As such, they either miss the point, or treat individuals as averages (through market research). Which would be like trying to create – much less maintain – a relationship with your partner by treating them as the ‘average’ man or woman. That wouldn’t work very well … or at least not for very long. While none of us is unique, which means much of our behaviours deviate little from average, to know someone is to know how, when, where and – most importantly – why they deviate from the normal. What’s more, essential to human bonding are trust, authenticity, vulnerability, etc. By combining our collective expertise in design, engagement, neuroscience and behaviour we are better able to work with companies to create narratives that are truly meaningful to their audiences … and in doing so establish a sense of loyalty that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Furthermore, most consultants – and indeed business generally – think that the power / success is in finding the right answer. Hence, consultants usually come to a company with lots of ‘answers’ to problems that either they see or the company sees. We take a fundamentally different approach. Rather than emphasising answers, we focus on questions. A GOOD questions is where success lives. But discovering / creating a really good question is … really … difficult. But as scientists and designers, that’s what we are good at … asking good questions, and indeed understanding what actually is a good and why. In addition, we’re also skilled at the craft of discovering the answers.
Finally, unlike most similar agencies, we are actually the source of the scientific understanding from which others use. In other words rather than trying to apply strategies, information, insights of others (usually from popular science books, which are inherently several years out of date once published), as scientists we are actually the source of that information. This gives us a tremendous advantage. Not only are we inherently contemporary but – more importantly – we truly understand the principles behind the information, not just the information itself. And as designers, we know how to share that understanding … not just with our clients, but with their hoped-for audience.