A neuroscientist explains why we can’t see the world objectively—and humanity is better for it

Seeing is believing.
Seeing is believing.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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Humans have a primal, biological imperative to maintain the status quo, but seeking out answers to the unknown is also incredibly important to evolutionary innovation.

This dichotomy creates all sorts of kerfuffles. We’re taught to rid ourselves of implicit biases that don’t serve society and to seek out objective answers in the world around us. But if we didn’t evolve to see life through an abstract lens, we would have never began shaping tools from stone or having the bravery to eat oysters, nonetheless devising the scientific experiments that revealed the natural laws of the universe. Perception is at the heart of these human traits—as well as of curiosity itself.

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto is one of the world’s leading researchers on the nature of perception. His TED talks—on what optical illusions can teach us about sight and the relationship between science and playfulness—have been viewed by millions of people, and his latest book, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, challenges the very notion of how we think we see. He believes that if we only regarded each other and our environments objectively, we would never see the possibility in the world around us. By encouraging curiosity and learning to recognize and analyze our biases, we can create a culture driven by creativity and experimentation instead of safe stoicism.

We spoke with Lotto about how we can change the way we see the world—and therefore begin to change it.

How do we misperceive perception?

We think we have an objective view of the world—that our perceptions are accurate representations of it. But we didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is.

Why did we evolve to see the world subjectively?

People have this assumption that if they don’t see the world objectively, it’ll create chaos. But by not seeing the world objectively, it actually creates possibility. It creates freedom. Accuracy is not the same thing as utility: I might see a rock accurately, but seeing it accurately doesn’t tell me what to do with it. If one of our ancestors saw a rock, they could have seen it with possibility and opportunity and shaped it to become a tool. Our brain evolved to take what is meaningless and make it meaningful, what’s useless and make it useful.

The other aspect is that our world is not static—it’s constantly changing. If we didn’t have a brain that could change with the world, then we would have been selected out a long time ago. In fact, the most successful systems are the ones that are adaptable. Being able to have flexibility in our perception means we can adapt to a changing world.

How much of this is learned and how much is inherited?

We come into the world with a brain that’s still incredibly plastic: It can’t take care of itself properly because it’s trying to learn the environment it’s just been born into. If you come into the world completely rigid and ready to go, that’s a very efficient strategy, as it allows you to immediately get away from a predator if needed. It’s very important, evolutionarily speaking. But what happens if you’re unexpectedly born into a completely different world? What if your mother was born in the African savannah and then you are born in snow in Alaska? Well, now you’re screwed. But because our brains are especially adaptable early on, we can adapt to whatever our local environment is. This is one of the reasons humans have been able to occupy such a diversity of niches that no other animal can.

There’s a good example I’ve heard you use a few times in relation to this. To paraphrase from Deviate:

“When you are sitting in your community, sheltered and protected, where everything is momentarily predictable, the last thing you want to do is say, “Hmmmm, I wonder what is on the other side of the hill?” Bad idea! The probability of dying just suddenly increased considerably. But it is because of that “mad” individual that the group has a better chance to survive in an environment that is dynamic—by learning what dangers or benefits are on the other side of that hill, and perhaps discovering new spaces of possibility that the group hadn’t known existed.”

We’re all subject to this binary biological push-and-pull every day: to stay safe, or to innovate. What gave those first homo sapiens the courage to gaze over that hill?

This has to do with uncertainty and how dying is easy, living is hard. Our brains and bodies evolved to not die—evolution works from failure, not from success. But being optimized to not to die is not the same thing as being optimized to live. A lot of that is about reducing uncertainty. Our brains and behaviors evolved to try to minimize uncertainty in almost all circumstances.

If it’s hardwired into us in that way, how can we overcome this fear of the unknown?

That’s the irony, right? We don’t go over the hill because that increases the probability of dying. That’s a very good idea—essential. The problem is that we also have to be able to adapt, and adapting requires you going over and seeing what’s on the other side of the hill. So in certain contexts, uncertainty is actually a very positive thing—we actively seek it out, in fact. That way of being is now called science.

What do you mean by that?

Science isn’t defined simply as a methodology—it’s a way of being. It celebrates uncertainty and is open to possibility. It’s inherently cooperative and intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing science is science itself. The reward for discovery is the process of discovery. But it also has an intention to it.

Scientists not only delve into the unknown and reveal what is not yet known—they also question the things we do think we know and continually pressure-test them under different circumstances to see where our knowledge cracks. How can we apply this to the rest of society?

We need to enable people to see differently. The first step is to acknowledge, accept, and embody the fact that everything you do has a bias: Everything you do is grounded in assumption not sometimes, but all the time. And a lot of your assumptions you inherited from your culture or even your evolutionary ancestors. If you don’t accept that, you’re never going to ask a question. And you’re going to get selected out.

The second step is to know what those assumptions are and accept them. We have to reveal them to ourselves and to others, which is the power of groups. The power of diversity, exploration, and traveling is that it reveals your assumptions to yourself.

Then the next step is to question those assumptions. That’s the hardest bit, because we hate to throw ourselves into uncertainty—because to not know was once literally to die. We have to put ourselves in environments that enable us and others to ask questions, that make you want to challenge what you think you knew already. You have to be able to celebrate doubt. But in a world that emphasizes competition and answers, often that is the scariest thing to do.

I feel that’s pretty typical of Western school systems, too—all of those malleable kids’ brains being forced to memorize rote lessons.

Yes, this is very different from the school environments we tend to put children in, which are all based on competition and maximizing efficiency, not asking questions. To ask a question is scary and potentially very dangerous: to challenge what you assumed to be true already—especially about yourself—and to question your own identity. That’s the ultimate uncertainty. And there needs to be a need for you to ask questions in the first place. That need can come from fear, but the more positive framework for it to come from is awe and wonder. “I wonder if…” is the most amazing start of a question. 

This is where our i,scientist program comes into play, which is a project where we work with young kids on the process of science itself. We do this by encouraging a sense of awe and wonder. Because if you don’t have a sense of that, you’re not going to ask questions.

How will emerging technologies—like AI, VR, and AR—change human perception?

They have the potential for tremendously positive impact, but that has to do with the technology. Most of our technology enables us to do what we can already do, faster, easier, and with less restriction; they can make our processes more efficient. Those are good technologies. They’re very useful, but they’re not great technologies. The great, transformative technologies are the ones that make the invisible visible: They enable us to see something, experience something, imagine something that we never knew existed before. Some of those examples are the telescope, the microscope, the fMRI—and even something as simple as the sail. The sail enabled us to see parts of the world and cultures that we never knew existed, and in doing so, it suddenly not only challenged our own assumptions but expanded our space of possibility. We always think of technologies as being digital, but there are some tremendous innovations that all revolve around traveling—both physically and metaphorically.

Humans are currently obsessed with this idea of becoming “more human”; we’re trying to hack ourselves to push the limits of our natural human abilities. Sometimes we do that through technology and other times it’s through life hacks that try to make us quicker, smarter, more productive. In some ways I think that’s brilliant: that we’re taking advantage of the bodies and brains we’ve evolved to have. But in other ways I feel like its artificialness is actually taking us away from true humanness. Where do you sit on this?

We’re trying to move faster, communicate faster, faster, faster, FASTER! That’s because we keep focusing on efficiency as the major driver: I wanna get more for less; I’m gonna out-compete someone else; I’m gonna get there more quickly—and I’m not gonna spend as much money getting there. It’s all about performance in the sense of efficiency. That’s true even within our schools: getting kids to focus on getting the answer—that there is an answer.

The basis of creativity is humility and not knowing. Nothing interesting comes from knowing—it comes from not knowing. It doesn’t come from confidence—it comes from courage. Every successful company begins with creativity: a question and an idea. It then makes itself successful by taking that idea and making it efficient. Innovation is that balance between creativity and efficiency.

So many people are afraid to admit to what they don’t know, though. And once they’ve formed an opinion, they’re often afraid to change it—if they’re even open to thinking they might be wrong in the first place.

Isn’t that stupid? If you do a U-turn and change your mind, you’re seen as being weak. One of the reasons we do this is because we don’t want that uncertainty: We’d rather have the certainty of belief than the uncertainty you might change your mind. So when someone changes their mind, you’ve now created uncertainty, you’ve created doubt. We’re currently trying to artificially engineer a system that doesn’t change, and that’s because we’re so afraid of change itself.

In the end, should we always be playful and creative, and stop trying to correctly categorize the world around us?

No, not always. Wisdom is knowing where to be at the edge of chaos, metaphorically. It’s knowing when to be one versus the other—because if a bus is coming at you, you don’t want to be creative: You want to get out of the way as efficiently and fast as possible.

So, what should we do, then?

The beginning of question is “quest,” right? We can go on our own quest. We can push our own boundaries. We can challenge our own norms. We can all be explorers, because it’s all relative.