Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently

April 25, 2017


Beau Lotto's new book is about the evolutionary, physiological underpinnings of our perception, and "shows that the next big innovation is not a new technology: it is a new way of seeing."

We are living in a golden age of neuroscience. Renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto has been working all over the world in both the academic world and the public sphere (in education, the arts, and business), helping advance our understanding of perception and the brain, for over twenty years. In his new book, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, he examines the evolutionary and physiological underpinnings of perception, drawing "on over two decades of pioneering research to explain that our brain didn't evolve to see the world accurately."  

Lotto's revelations will challenge the way you see the world, and that is the point. It is as revolutionary as, and a natural extension of, the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who showed us the ways in which our perception and assumptions are riddled with flaws and sought to sow seeds of doubt about our own rightness and so we could slow down, overcome our inherent biases, and make clearer, better decisions. 

We received an excerpt from Deviate, which explains why we need to learn to see things differently. But, to set up the excerpt, we need Lotto to introduce the physiological basis of perception and the idea of attractor states: 


What you experience at any moment is just a stable pattern of electrical activity distributed throughout your brain—an unromantic view of perception, but it is nevertheless roughly accurate. Over the course of your life, the electrical patterns generated in your brain become ever more "stable," which is called an attractor state in physics. Dunes in the desert are an example of an attractor state, as are whirlpools in a river. Even our galaxy is an attractor state. They all represent emergent, stable patterns that arise from the interactions of many individual elements over time. 


Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, here is Lott's case for why we must be adaptive as individuals and organizations, why we must change with change. It comes from Chapter 6, "The Physiology of Assumptions." It leaves you with a question that I hope will entice you to visit your local bookstore today, so you can pick up the book and read on.


The electrical patterns in your brain (and the distributed patterns across communicating brains) aren't necessarily the ideal ones just becasue they might have been the most fit response "once upon a time." Indeed . . . what was once useful may no longer be useful.

The natural world is in constant flux. Life is correlated noise that matters. If your world is stable, remaining still can be the best strategy. But the world is not stable. It usually changes (though not always meaningfully). Evolution is the literal embodiment of this fact, since species that move (evolve) live and movement is life, which includes relative movement, and thus equally can mean remaining still (or constant) when all about you shifts (as in Kipling’s poem “If ”). Remember, context is everything. Our traits must stay useful; otherwise we disappear and take our genes with us . . . and the resulting assumptions inherent in the structure of our brains. This, of course, is what happened to our vanished evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals and other hominids. This changefulness of reality is just as evident today. Industries collapse and new ones arise, just like all the jobs within these industries. Likewise, our relationships change . . . with our friends, our families, and our romantic partners. Flux is built into these incredibly important contexts, so we must flow with the flux. We must be adaptive . . . the most successful systems are!

In fact, the more the world becomes “connected,” the more each event in that world becomes “conditional” (or contextual) on the events around it in space and time. This is an incredibly important point. We all know the saying “When I was young . . . ” Well, the world truly is different now than it was before. Previously, what happened to the Aztecs on any given day, no matter how constructive or destructive, had little immediate influence on the other societies or cultures that coexisted in other parts of the world. That’s not the case today. Today, the stock market crashes in Tokyo and the effects are felt in New York even before the traders on the New York Stock Exchange open their eyes to a new “future bear” day. The possibility of new emergent global attractor states is more probable (hence the global financial crisis is a negative example, although of course not all examples are negative: the assumption that we are free to speak our minds, the Internet, and the World Cup are some positive examples). And like all developing, highly connected systems, the resulting attractor states are less predictable every day, a condition that is paralleled by the unpredictability of the weather with climate change.

In short . . . the world’s ecology (physical and social, which combine to shape the personal) is becoming more uncertain as the actions of others are now felt much more immediately.

To temper against this, religiosity is increasing, the fear of “otherness” and more generally a fear of losing control (evidenced by the Brexit vote in the UK—or more accurately England). So too, then, are global memes. There is an alternative to these latter strategies: Rather than impose an artificial order that doesn’t belong, we must change with change, as it is inherent in our ever-transforming ecology. This is a deeply biological solution. It’s what we—and other systems—evolved to do. And to explicitly reiterate a previous point (as it’s essential to remember), in nature the most successful systems are the most adaptable.

If we don’t, our brains will surrender to their previous momentums and we will only cling to old, unknown assumptions, increasing the stubborn stability of the personal and social attractor states since they are simply the ones that are there, and thus deepening the attractor states that inhibit us. Our assumptions make them inevitable.

Or do they?

Excerpted from the book Deviate  by Beau Lotto. 
Published on April 25, 2017 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group.
Copyright © 2017 by Beau Lotto.
All rights reserved.



Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience, previously at University College London and now at the University of London, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University. His work focuses on the biological, computational and psychological mechanisms of perception. He has conducted and presented research on human and bumblebee perception and behavior for more than twenty-five years, and his interest in education, business and the arts has led him into entrepreneurship and engaging the public with science. In 2001, Beau founded the Lab of Misfits, a neuro-design studio that was resident for two years at London's Science Museum and most recently at Viacom in New York. The lab's experimental studio approach aims to deepen our understanding of human nature, advance personal and social well-being through research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programs of engagement that span the boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions. Originally from Seattle, with degrees from UC Berkeley and Edinburgh Medical School, he now lives in Oxford and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @BeauLoyto.

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