Is your World a Story? | Beau Lotto: Understanding Perception

The world of renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto is a strange and unique one. Working out of the London based Lottolab which he founded in 2006,  it’s described  as ‘ the world’s first public perception research space’. A hybrid art studio and science lab where Beau and his team carry out unorthodox experiments to illustrate and study the many illusions, perceptions and narratives that we ourselves create. Their latest daring experiment involves turning their lab into a nightclub to study the promiscuity of dancing. Other experiments include studying how bumblebees see colour, how we process sensory information through music and their app, Traces, which allows people to leave digital messages in the real world for others to discover. This is a place where nothing is as it seems. The very nature of how you see, feel, touch and hear are questioned.

Can you give us an overview of the work you do? What it encompasses, the app you’ve released and the primary intention of the work.

So the larger context is the Lotto lab. We call it the lab of misfits. We bring together anthropologists, primatologists, computer scientists, dancers, choreographers, all kinds of people, and they all engage over the topic of perception. We bring people together because if you really want to get people to have a more empathetic view of nature and human nature you have to do that experientially. The aim is basically to turn experiments into experiences. We get people to engage with live science but they become the creators of the science as well as the participants of it. So my lab for instance was turned into a nightclub and we created this theatrical, cabaret burlesque experience.

My first introduction to your work was watching the engaging Understanding Perception video (below). In it you talk about making the invisible visible. Can you explain what you mean by that?

I’m talking about things that we didn’t know existed before that we now know exist because of technology. The example I love to use is a boat and how that allowed us to see things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And the microscope, telescope, MRI, these are all amazing technologies.
When something becomes visible what that means is it’s increasing the dimensionality of our potential experience. Everything you’re seeing and doing right now is a reflex and it’s limited to what I call your space of possibility. Your space of possibility is grounded in your biases and your assumptions. And this is true in everything, from how we perceive others to how we perceive the colour red. The question is, how can we ever enable ourselves to see differently if everything we see is grounded in history and past perceptions?
Often people think those perceptions are linked to reality but they’re not. So what that means is the only way that I can change what I perceive is by changing my past meanings. Free will doesn’t exist in the moment.

So how do we change the previous meaning?

By creating a new narrative. Everything we do is a story. We’re all trying to reframe something that has already happened, even in the moment. So what we can do is think back and reinterpret. Jung said that no problem is ever fixed. We only change our perspective. We can only reinterpret what happens, and that reinterpretation becomes part of our past narrative, even though we’re doing it from the present. I’m changing a narrative of the past and because what I’m going to do in the future is grounded in my narrative, I’m literally changing my history. I call it changing your future past.

Just going back to the nightclub experiment, what did you get out of the study? What were the findings?

We have a paper right now that we’re writing about the promiscuity of dancing. What’s really significant is that some of the observations we made suggest the exact opposite of what you get in a lab. In a lab people behave in the way they think they’re supposed to, so you don’t get people’s genuine behaviour. If I gave you ten dollars and asked you to make some decisions, of course you’ll make completely different decisions to ones you would make if it was your money that you were spending in a nightclub and you were trying to impress someone.

So what are you trying to ultimately achieve?

A more empathetic view of nature and human nature. I want people to care more. And the only way to accept the humanity of others is to accept the humanity of yourself.

It’s all about caring and I think that the best routes to this are through science. But you have to rethink what science is. Science can be a way of life. That’s the intention. I want to create this space that enables people to become more passionate, more creative, with a better sense of community.

Traces, the app, is about how you do this in the digital world. There’s all this wonder about the digital experience. Virtual reality is one example but it’s one that is kind of just an extreme version of Facebook. It’s a replacement of the real world rather than an engagement with it. So what I wanted to say here is that actually your brain is the biggest barrier for the digital. Because how does the digital become meaningful if the way the brain makes meaning is by physically engaging with the world?
Facebook is not increasing the quality of human relationships, it’s about being social but it’s the broadcasting side of social not the giving side of social. So we developed this thing where we release digital content, videos and images, into the real world, creating experiences for people. The thing floats in an augmented drop of water. You get your phone out, you see it floating there and you can grab it. We’ve shown that it increases awareness of empathy, compassion, closeness to other people and what’s more in the case of music it actually increases people’s perception of the song by 20%. People like the song better because they had to put effort into getting it.

What’s next for you?

We’re creating the lab of misfits where we will have a permanent space with a nightclub setting. The last time we did it was in East London where we booked out an underground Victorian prison. It sold out in three days, because of course people want to be a part of it. They’re funding the science that they’re a part of. So it’s a whole new funding model we’re playing with.

Lotto Lab