Beau Lotto| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Founder and CEO of Lab of Misfits Studio, Beau Lotto

Maria’s guest on the show is Dr. Beau Lotto. Beau is a world-renowned neuroscientist, bestselling author, and entrepreneur. Beau is also the founder and CEO of Lab of Misfits, the world’s first neuro-design studio. His studies in human perception have taken him well beyond the scientific domain and into the fields of education, the arts, and business. He has been a two-time main stage TED speaker and spoken at the G8, Google’s ZeitgeistMinds, Wired, and made contributions to BBC’s Horizon, National Geographic Channel and PBS. Beau’s aim is to use the principles of perception to enable people to think differently about both themselves and the world around them.

Maria: 

This week, my guest is Dr. Beau Lotto. Beau is a world-renowned neuroscientist, best-selling author, and entrepreneur. Beau is also the founder and CEO of Lab of Misfits, the world’s first neuro-design studio. His studies in human perception have taken him well beyond the scientific domain and into the fields of education, the arts, and business.

He has been a two-time main stage TED speaker and spoken at the G8, Google’s ZeitgeistMinds, Wired, and made contributions to BBC’s Horizon, National Geographic Channel and PBS. Beau’s aim is to use the principles of perception to enable people to think differently about both themselves and the world around them.

Maria: 

Hello, Beau. Thank you for joining me.

Dr. Beau Lotto:

Hello, Maria. It’s lovely to see you.

Maria:  

Thank you. Let’s start. Why neuroscience? Where did that come from?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Why did I study neuroscience?

Maria: 

Yes.

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Ah, well, let’s see, do you want the honest answer or the other one?

Maria:

I want the honest answer.

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

The reason is because I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, and I was at Berkeley. My first two years, I was on academic probation and my last two years, I was on the honour wall. The first two years, I was in the bottom 2%, and the last two years, I was in the top 2% so on average, I didn’t have the scores to get into medical school. But I still was fascinated by biology, and I was fascinated by how the body works, and how we engage in the world. So, I thought, “Well, if I’m going to study the body rather than fix it, I want to study the most interesting part which is the brain.” Then I went to Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland to do that. I’ve since learned that you can fix the brain, but you can fix it in a different way.

Maria: 

Tell us a little bit, because you mentioned Edinburgh, and I know your background, but you’ve got a very global accent. What is your nationality? What is your background? Why is your accent so global?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Global or just confused? I was born and raised in Seattle and then San Francisco. I was an undergrad at Berkeley University and I have family that lives in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, so I spent time in all three places. But then when I was just early 20s, I moved to Britain, Scotland, in particular, and there I remained for 25 years.

Basically, almost quite literally, half my life was in the States, and the other half was in Britain with a bit of sojourn into Paris.  The Brits don’t necessarily think I have an accent nor do the Americans. I just sort of don’t fit anywhere it seems hence the Lab of Misfits.

Maria:

Yes, absolutely, and we will go on to that. But I wanted to ask you, first of all, about the fact that you say that we experience everything through our brains. That we never, ever really see reality. I’m here, people listening to the podcast, obviously, are listening to an audio. But we’re actually on video, we’re on a video link. Am I not really seeing you then?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Yes and no. I mean this is not post-modern relativism. The world exists. There’s a physical world out there. It’s just that we don’t see it. What do I mean by that? What we see is the meaning of the information off information. The information that’s falling onto your eyes is in quite a literal sense meaningless.

Data by itself is pointless. There is no inherent value in any piece of data. People working on big data, data’s pointless. Which makes them essential, because data doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s the interpretation, it’s the utility of data that’s meaningful. That’s true at the most basic level of your eyes, or your nose, your touch, your hearing.

The data could literally mean anything. That it could be something large and far away or something small and up close. Your brain has no way of knowing from the data itself. The only thing it can use is its history. The brain evolved to continually redefine normality.

Maria:   

Wow, OK. So, once you understand that, does that help you in terms of your relationships, and how you see the world, and how you interact with people?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

I think it’s fundamental to exactly that. Once you understand how perception works, you can’t but help see yourself in the world in a different way and engage in it in a different way.

First of all, we learn that everything that you see as soon as you open your eyes, in fact, even before you open your eyes, everything your thinking is grounded in your history of biases and assumptions. That’s what history gives you. Many of those biases and assumptions you actually inherited. You might have inherited from your family, from your culture, from your organisation, or even your evolutionary ancestors which means most of your life happened without you even there.

Every time you engage with the world you’re engaging through assumptions and bias, not sometimes, all the time. The first step to being able to see differently is to acknowledge that, that’s the case.

The problem is that many of those biases and assumptions, if not most of them, we don’t even know what they are. You’re engaging with the world through this objective lens, you think is an objective lens when in fact it’s subjective. You’re not even aware of the biases that are part of that subjective experience.

Again, having that awareness creates possibility that you might then be able to see differently. So, yes, understanding perception gives us the way to be able to engage with the world in a different way but we can also use the principles of perception to see differently, because that’s what the brain evolved to do.

Maria: 

OK, wow!

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

It is to take advantage of the mechanisms that are already there to see differently.

Maria: 

OK. What is neuro-design that you do at Lab of Misfits? What is that about?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

The idea with neuro-design is that the lab does two things. We want to understand what these principles are, but then we want to apply those principles. The neuro is, of course, understanding the principles, and the design is the application of them.

Everything that the lab does, and, basically, the lab is here to become an experiential space, an experiential lab. We create experiences that enable people to see differently. We do that by combining our expertise in neuroscience, but also, design and production. We then create these opportunities for people to embody those principles and, again, to have the possibility of seeing themselves in the world differently.

Because the fact is the world is changing faster and faster. As it becomes more interconnected, your control over that world becomes increasingly less. This is just mathematics, which means that the most successful systems in nature are the ones that adapt. What we really need to do is not just adapt, but become adaptable.

The brain evolved to do that. Why try to solve the problem again? We’ve had millions of years of evolution that enabled us to do that. Let’s just figure out what those principles are and then apply them. That’s where the design comes in.

Maria: 

Can you give us an example of perhaps one of these experiments, these labs that you’ve created for a client? Are you allowed to share something like that?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

Yes. We’ve created one, for instance, for L’Oréal on empowerment. We created a whole set of experiments where women would come into a space, and we would literally create an experience for them but as an experiential experiment, so it’s both an experience but an experiment. We’re collecting data etc. The women walk away with a better understanding of themselves. We’ve actually shown that through the project with L’Oréal, we’re actually better able to create a sense of empowerment in those women, and we filmed it etc. L’Oréal were then able to use that as content for PR and Marketing as well.

Another project we’re doing is with Cirque du Soleil where we’re doing the neuroscience of awe and wonder. We’re able to record the brain activity of participants while watching a Cirque du Soleil event and also look at the unconscious changes in their behaviour before and after the event.

For us, that helps us better understand awe and wonder, but for Cirque du Soleil, they then can own awe and wonder for their PR and marketing and the content and the data. In terms of their ability to engage with the world, they’re able to engage in a far more meaningful way, and they’re able to have hits at PR and marketing that they never had before.

Maria:  

That’s amazing. Cirque du Soleil obviously is an incredible experience in itself anyway. If they’re going to have an even greater understanding and a greater connection, I can’t even begin to imagine what that could potentially look like. That’s very exciting.

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

That’s right. It also feeds back into the ability for their own organisation to become adaptable. Of course, their audience walks away with a better sense of loyalty, because Cirque du Soleil creates an experience that helped their audience better understand themselves.

For us, it’s a new way for brands and organisations to engage with their audiences through the neuro-design. The one thing hits multiple things simultaneously, brand engagement, loyalty, attention, understanding, insight. They also create the possibility of being purpose-driven, and they actually contribute to our deeper understanding of what it is to be human, all at the same time.

Maria:

Wow. That’s huge. That is just brilliant.

Dr. Beau Lotto:

And it works. That’s the beauty of it.

Maria: 

Wow. That’s very exciting. When you and I talked about this before where often brands and companies are engaging with the average consumer, that’s a really big problem. Does this get around that? That you’re actually able to engage on a much more personal level?

Dr. Beau Lotto:

Yes, to a large extent. The fact is that brands engage with people, and if you don’t understand what it is to be human, how on earth are you going to be able to engage with them in a meaningful way?

First, you have to understand what are the drivers of people? Also, brands want their audience to expand or to change. Well, what are the barriers to change? How best to engage with an audience in that way?

Or if you want your audience to have a stronger sense of loyalty, what is required for the brain to feel loyalty? What’s more that if they can engage with their audiences in a new way that actually enables their audiences to have insight into themselves, they also create loyalty that way as well.

Maria:

OK. I know also that you’re big into augmented reality. Can you tell us a bit about some of the work that you’re doing there?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

Yes, so we have an actual augmented reality startup company that we founded about six years ago. We have patents in AR space, four or five patents in AR space. Of course, as everybody knows, AR is now possibly one of the hottest topics in technology. Everyone believes it to be the future. We were very fortunate to be very early on that.

We are now creating a number of platforms for augmented reality. One will be the world’s first social AR platform. The other is an augmented reality product that’s around storytelling and location, so imagine podcasts, but podcasts in location.

But the first one, which is called Akeela, what it enables you to do is to take your social platforms, your social networks and carry them wherever you go. So, you can be at a conference, for instance, and you can float your Akeela. What that means is you have your photograph, and it follows you wherever you go. People can get it off their phone. They can see the photograph. I can see Maria’s photograph up there, so I wonder who she is? I can see her photograph. I can grab it, and then I can see all of her social profiles that she lets me see, her Spotify playlist, even her personal website, or her Facebook page.

What it’s really about is using technology to get people to re-engage with the world and re-engage with each other, because that’s where your brain lives. Your brain makes meaning is in the physical world, not by passively receiving information but by actively engaging with the people in the space around you. We’re creating technologies that enable that. Those can actually be used at the talks that I give or in nightclubs and conferences etc.

Maria:  

So, you’ve got to be careful what you put out there on your social media now, because people are going to be able see it when using Akeela.

Dr. Beau Lotto:

Well, if you so choose. But what’s interesting is it also enables people to be more honest. Because what people do with Facebook is they can put anything up, but there’s no recompense. You can hide behind it. But here, you’re present. You’re there.

It’s basically a digital handshake. Why do we say, “Hi, how are you?” Then three minutes later, you say “So, how are you?” Because we need that ritual in order to start a conversation.

When you go to a conference this doesn’t say just say your name. It says what you might be interested in, talk to me about this. It’s a way of facilitating those conversations. We’re basically the initiator of conversation.

Maria:

Brilliant and better conversations in that case. I wanted to come back to another area that I know you talk about, and I think it’s an area that again relates really strongly in neuroscience, it’s risk and uncertainty. How does the human brain deal with risk and uncertainty?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Ah, right. Risk and uncertainty, probably the fundamental challenge that your brain evolved to resolve, in fact, not just human brains, all brains evolved to resolve is uncertainty. We hate uncertainty. We hate uncertainty, why? Because to not know during evolution was to die. If you weren’t sure that was a predator, it was too late. Your brain evolved to take what is uncertain and make it certain. What is unpredictable and make it predictable.

That’s why if you go down below on a boat, you’ll feel seasick. Because your eyes are moving to register your boat, and you say, “Well, oh, we’re standing still,” and your ears are saying, “No, no, we’re moving.” Your brain gets ill, because it can’t deal with that conflict.

Almost every human behaviour is about decreasing uncertainty. That’s why Uber is successful. It’s not simply because they tell you, because it’s a faster way to order a taxi. It’s because they tell you when the taxi’s going to arrive.

That’s why they have times on bus shelters. Because if the bus is going to be 25 minutes late, at least I know it’s going to be 25 minutes late. Everything is about decreasing uncertainty.

The irony is that it’s only by stepping into uncertainty that you can actually see differently. That’s basically what I talk to people about. How can you actually go against these millions of years of evolution and go to the very place that you evolved to avoid? The beauty is that the brain evolution gave us a solution to that because to step into uncertainty is so essential that we had to have a mechanism. It’s that mechanism of perception, of changing perceptions that I talk to people about.

Maria: 

Brilliant. Brilliant. When you speak you often say to audiences that they will come away knowing less at the end of your session than at the beginning which might not be the best way for us to be doing the marketing of your sessions actually when I think about it. But there’s a very good reason you say that. Can you share with us why you say that?

Dr. Beau Lotto:

Yes, because nothing interesting begins with knowing, it begins with not knowing. Because if you think about design thinking, design thinking almost always begins with a problem. But if I come up with a great solution to a useless problem, who really cares?

The cache is in a good question. That’s what’s the powerful thing about the brain, and the powerful thing about science is the ability to ask a good question. The only way to do that is if you enter with humility, you enter with the excitement of stepping into uncertainty which is to enter a situation with a question and then to iterate and find better and better questions. Iteration is not really about finding better and better solutions, it’s about finding better and better questions.

I want to get the audience to experience that process of actually not knowing, i.e. asking a question and being excited about asking questions. That’s where the leadership comes in. That’s where ecology comes in, it’s creating that environment that enables people to step into uncertainty and to ask a good question.

Maria: 

OK, so do you think that companies often are asking the wrong questions of their people when they’re focusing on efficiency and profitability and not focusing on innovation?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

Yes. Companies are often, not always, of course, but often asking the wrong questions, because, partly, they’re not even asking questions.

Innovation, you mention innovation, it has two sides. It has creativity, and it has efficiency. This is true in biology as well, in nature as well. You have exploration, and you have exploitation. You always have these two sides.

Almost every company begins with creativity. They have a great idea. The next best step is to make that idea efficient. That is a very good idea. The best environment in biology for creating an environment for efficiency is competition.

The problem is the company then stops, but the world doesn’t. The world continues to change. What companies then try to do is they find themselves becoming increasingly inefficient, because the world around them has shifted, so, again, they try to maximise efficiency again. They’ll lay off people. They’ll try to cut costs, etc., not necessarily a bad idea, but the world keeps changing.

What they have to do is then enter the cycle again. They have to again begin with creativity, begin with a question, and then they go through that creativity to efficiency cycle again, but they rarely do that. Instead, what they do is they want their employees to be creative, but they have an environment of efficiency in which to be creative. It’s the wrong kind of environment.

The environment they’re looking for is one that can enable them not to be in one or the other but to be able to move between them. Because to be adaptable is not to be in creativity or in efficiency. If after my talks, I tell them I don’t want them to walk out of the space and start trying to see everything differently, because if a bus is coming at them, I want them to get out of the way as fast as possible.

Wisdom is knowing when to be in one or the other and how to create an environment and actually be able to move. Because life is movement. It’s not being one or the other.

Maria:  

Brilliant. I love that. You come out with so much great stuff, Beau. I want to talk a little bit about your book. Deviate and deviation, what does it mean? Is it to be a deviator or deviant? What is the word?

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

It’s to be a deviator. To deviate is really actually to be yourself. What I’m trying to do is demystify creativity. There’s nothing creative about creativity. Creativity is only created from the outside not from the inside.

It’s because we have this illusion that to be creative is to put two things that are far apart together. That somehow your brain has to make that magical leap. Your brain doesn’t make leaps. Your brain only ever makes small steps to the next most likely possible.

But what’s possible for one person is different from what’s possible for another. To deviate is basically to give people the principles and the understanding for how they can change that space of possibility, not to make big jumps. It’s still to make small steps but to change the steps that you make by changing your assumptions and biases that define that space. But to question what you assume to be true already is very, very difficult, because that takes you into uncertainty.

So, how can we get people to challenge their biases and assumptions in order to change their space of possibility, so that their next step is a new one? That’s what Deviate is about. That is to deviate, to deviate from what everyone else is doing, to deviate what you might have been doing in the past.

I want to demystify it and say, “This is something you can learn. This is not something you’re born with. We can all be deviators.”

Maria:  

Brilliant. Well, let’s all go be deviators, not be deviant but be deviators. Sorry, you were going to say something.

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

Well, actually as a consequence, you become deviant, because to be deviant is deviant relative to a norm. But to be deviant is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just to be different.

The best things in life don’t literally make sense. Because what makes sense is the medium, is the average, is the mean. But that’s not where innovation lives. Innovation doesn’t live at the average. It lives out in the periphery and becomes the future average.

That’s why you have to deviate. You have to step away from the average and to do so is to follow your own trajectory, because everyone has that possibility. It’s just whether your reference for your next step is what everyone else is doing, or what you are doing.

At a future time, what will happen is you will look up, and you will realise, “Whoa, I’m in a different place.” Not because you tried to, just because you followed what made sense.

Maria: 

Yes, absolutely, absolutely, I love that. Beau, how did you get into speaking for companies? How did that begin?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

How did that begin to speak with companies? Because I actually really enjoy it now. When I first started, I wasn’t so keen but, now, I really enjoy it.

It’s because I’m interested in companies changing, but if you want to change a company, you have to change the people. If companies want to be more creative, the individuals have to be more creative. They can’t just be creative within the context of a company, they have to live creatively.

My talks are not just about the organisation. They’re about the individuals of the organisation whether or not they’re at the organisation. It’s how they are at home with their kids, with their partner, how they engage with life. Because these principles transcend business. They’re relevant to what it is to be human, but they’re directly applicable to how we engage in the world with business.

But what’s more if we can change businesses and get them to be more creative and innovative that actually will facilitate a more creative and innovative world. Because companies have tremendous influence on how the rest of us experience our lives.

There’s a positive feedback system that I’m trying to facilitate through the public speaking. When I better understood how perception works, it felt so obvious. What’s wonderful is once you communicate that to people, it also feels obvious to them after.

Maria: 

Yes, and it’s really useful to understand it and to apply it, brilliant. Finally, I want to ask you a bit of a personal question here. I wanted to find out, how did you get into the world of bonobo monkeys?

Dr. Beau Lotto: 

Ah, bonobo primates.

Maria: 

Oh, primates, apologies.

Dr. Beau Lotto:  

Bonobo primates. Well, I’m not into them at all. It’s my wife who is into them, because I happened to meet this wonderful woman who studies play behaviour. She studies play behaviour, because that is in fact one of the secrets which is, what did evolution give us that enables us to step into uncertainty? It gave us play.

Play is a deeply, not just philosophical, but a deeply significant behaviour. There’s tremendous cost in playing, so it has to be there for a reason. This is one of the reasons. That it enables us to step into uncertainty, and how to be in that space of uncertainty.

Bonobos, who are one of our closest living relatives, they are remarkable at play. It’s in trying to understand the principles, the deeper, deeper biological principles of play that we can then apply and create environments and spaces, architecture, organisations, way of interactions by these principles. That’s what she studies.

That’s also what we were studying, because science is play. We created a whole education programme around that concept that resulted in the youngest published scientist in the world and the youngest ever TED speaker. Thinking that science is play but play with intention. In fact, anything that is creative is play with intention. It’s how you create that environment within an organisation, a business that will enable them to then step forward in new ways that they didn’t think so before.

Maria: 

Well, listen, it’s a lovely place to end to think about play and also for us to consider the amazing conversations you and your wife must have over the dinner table. Thank you for that, thank you, Beau.

Dr. Beau Lotto:      

Thank you so much.

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