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The Amazing Ways Your Brain Determines What You See

Perception underpins everything we think, do, believe, know, or love, says neuroscientist Beau Lotto.

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What you see is what you hear with these instruments, which play music based on light captured by cameras embedded inside them. The 'seeing instruments' were created for an exhibit by neuroscientist Beau Lotto and artist Nick Kary.

Terms like “deviant” and “misfit” are normally freighted with negative connotations. But neuroscientist Beau Lotto explains in his new book, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, that it is our ability to defy conformity that has triggered nearly every advance in human progress. The next big innovation probably won’t be a new technology, he says, but a new way of seeing.

When National Geographic caught up with him at his home in New York City, he explained how a blind boy used echolocation to navigate the world, why the color red doesn’t exist, and why scientific research can lead to compassion.

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So tell me, how does a neuroscientist get a book blurb from Jerry Harrison of the band Talking Heads?

[Laughs] I met Jerry through another friend, Peter Baumann from Tangerine Dream. Peter started a project called Being Human. He put on a TED-like conference and I happened to be the first speaker of his very first conference, about four years ago. Ever since then Jerry and I have remained friends. My research is also increasingly interested in music because there's something absolutely otherworldly about its ability to do things that the visual arts can't do. I think a lot of future tech will be focusing less on vision and more on sound.

A picture of a dress went viral in 2015 because people could not agree what colors it was composed of. What does this say about human perception?

The story started in Scotland with someone taking a photograph of a dress and then sending it back and forth. Suddenly they couldn’t agree about the color of the dress, which demonstrated that two people can have different views of something as basic as color.

When you say things like, we don't see reality, people think you're being a post-modern relativist. That's not the case. There is a physical world. It's just that we don't see it. Red doesn't exist, the note “C” doesn't exist. These are all things inside our heads that we project out into the world.

What I loved about the dress story is that it created doubt and I'm a huge believer in doubt. Of course, I’m a color scientist, and a lot of press were calling me and other color scientists to give an explanation. But I felt there was another story that wasn't being told, which is, why did it go viral? People are very familiar with illusion. So why would this illusion go viral? It was because it was something as basic as color, and that two people couldn't agree. But if that's true about color, think about everything else it says. If it's true there, it has to be true all the way up to what the brain does.

Apollo Robbins on Perception Deception expert Apollo Robbins has mastered the art of using the eye to fool the brain.

You say your primary motivation in writing this book is to inspire compassion through scientific understanding. Can you explain the linkage?

There's a much stronger link than people think. It’s about asking ourselves what does it mean to be a good scientist? Too often we think science is a methodology, a process. Our idea is that it's a way of being that enables you to step into uncertainty. And celebrating doubt, stepping into uncertainty, is fundamental to being compassionate.

It's not so much that I'm doing research into compassion. I'm hoping that compassion comes out of the research, by making people part of the process of understanding their own perceptions. Perception underpins everything we think, do, believe, know, or love. Once you understand that, there are consequences like compassion, respect, creativity, choice, community.

You use the phrase “the physics of no.” Explain what that means—and how it manifests itself in what you call “the ecology of the brain.”

So often we say no to things as if it's a law of physics, like gravity. We treat our perceptions as if they’re constant and intransigent, when many are actually flexible and come from a place. When we understand where they come from we can actually alter where they're going to go. It's stepping out of the physics of no, into the biology of maybe, of possibility.

That's where we think about the ecology of the brain. The brain doesn't just sit inside your skull; it sits in an interaction between what's inside your skull and its body, and the body in the world. That's where perception lives. We often forget, especially in the contemporary digital world, that we evolved in this body, in this body in this world, and that's where the brain makes meaning. Perception is in the space between.

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Illusions make us question what we see. For instance, the two central squares visible on this cube are actually the same color. Can you figure out why?

You say that the next greatest innovation is not technology but our way of seeing or perceiving—unpack that thought for us.

It's about creativity. If you want to create the next great tech innovation, you have to be able to adapt to a way of being that enables you to step into uncertainty. Innovation has two sides: It has creativity and it has efficiency. But almost everything we do in our life, we focus on the efficiency side of the equation. Companies are constantly trying to get more for less. They start off with creativity, they have a great idea, then they try to maximize it through efficiency. That is also a good idea. But the problem is they don't start that cycle again. They just continue to try to maximize efficiency.

Governments do the same thing. We focus on answers instead of questions. In school, we focus on kids memorizing their times tables as opposed to understanding the concept of numbers themselves. I call that “play with intention.” This enables you to ask questions and start that innovative cycle again. If you don't have that you become increasingly obsolete; you won't be able to adapt.

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Ben Underwood reads his braille math book. Blind since birth, Underwood taught himself how to 'see' his surroundings through echolocation.

A particularly moving section of the book is about a blind boy who teaches himself to echolocate. Introduce us to Ben Underwood and the amazing science behind his achievement.

It’s a wonderful story in many different ways. Ben was born blind, with cancer in his eyes. He had a way of being that enabled him to constantly step into uncertainty and take risks.

The science behind it is that the brain is adaptable. The brain evolved to adapt because the world changes. The more successful systems of nature are the ones that adapt. Because the brain is able to adapt, it’s able to take advantage of local principles and rules specific to an area. This is one of the reasons humans have been able to inhabit such a diversity of environments, relative to other animals.

Ben was taking advantage of the fact that his brain had evolved to adapt. But in order to take advantage of that, he had to have a way of being, which was fundamentally facilitated by his mother. His mother provided certainty, which in his case was love. This enabled Ben to explore in a very uncertain way.

In doing so, he was able to make these tongue-clicking sounds. Initially, those sounds would have been completely meaningless, but through trial and error he was able to create perceptions. Each echo became meaningful, and he was able to perceive its meaning. He could only have done that by physically engaging with the world. What he did was change the process of perception itself. And that's how we can also remake our perceptions.

You are the director of the wonderfully named Lab of Misfits. Tell us about its mission.

The mission of the Lab of Misfits is basically to create spaces that use the principles of perception to enable people to perceive differently. We make people part of the process of discovery. We once did an event where we booked an underground Victorian prison in Clerkenwell in London. On this particular evening, the concept was uncertainty, so we had people walking down a long corridor that is getting dark and darker. Then they were taken by the hand and sat on a cushion on the ground, in a completely black space. They had no idea how big it was or how many people were around them.

I also wanted them to experience their senses in a different way. They experienced sound, for instance, as touch, so the room was filled with these incredibly strong sub-woofers that would come on, so the room started shaking and vibrating. We would take it up and down as if the room was breathing, then we took them through smell and other senses.

It's basically experiment as experience. We're getting data, measuring everything, but also sharing the discoveries with them. We call it “the reveal.” It becomes a space for creating understanding, both in a general sense, but also in a personal sense.

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For a Lab of Misfits exhibit, illuminated cubes of crystal were etched to depict the paths of bees as they learned how to see color in an experiment.

How can our readers create their own misfits lab?

The reason the book is called Deviate is to be a trope for people to see differently—to deviate. Think about politics. The concept of the U-turn is a very negative connotation. Yet what a stupid idea: to impose on politicians a refusal to change their views when they get new data. That they're going to stick to a belief simply because they're going to stick to it. That’s religion, as opposed to science. You want to be able to adapt. And see other people's perceptions.

It's about being a misfit and celebrating your own sense of deviance. In order to know you, you and I have an overlap about what it is to be a male. But the bit of us that doesn't overlap is what defines you. It's your deviance that defines who you are. So to love your wife is to love how she’s deviant, not how she's an average woman.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at