Opening the doors of perception…

Deviate by Beau Lotto

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the improbably named Beau Lotto was a surfer dude from his photo (left). But, perceptions, and assumptions made from them are rarely what you think. Dr Lotto is a renowned neuroscientist attached to UCL in London and Berkeley in the US. He specialises in perception. He appeared in two episodes of the BBC’s Horizon strand some years ago which were all about optical illusions – I remember parts of those programmes quite clearly, and searched out some of the illusions in them for our junior science club at school. He’s done two TED talks which are both excellent – one about perception, one about science education. He’s a great communicator on stage.

Now, he has published a book about the subject. In it, he takes many of the illusions that he used in the programmes and the TED talk and explains to us how we actually perceive them. Does his style translate to the printed page?

We look at colour first – and he uses a notorious example – The Dress, remember that?  The debate over whether a dress was blue or gold went viral. It was blue – but depending on the context of how you saw it – e.g. lighting, surrounding background etc, it can appear gold. In the book this is illustrated with some classic illusions similar to the one on the left – in which all the central grey squares are the same, and in later chapters, some more complex pictures where context, lighting and reflectivity play a part. So far so standard stuff.

The second chapter is provocatively named ‘Information is meaningless’.

The information from the world that falls onto our different senses could literally mean anything. It is nothing more than energy or molecules. […]

Instead, the “reality” that our perceptions see is the meaning of the meaningless information that your brain receives … the meaning your ecology gives it. It is critial to understand that the meaning of the thing is not the same as the thing itself. […]

The seeing of the colour red is itself the seeing of a past narrative of meanings.

Lotto is eminently quotable, although his frequent use of the word ‘ecology’ as a personal thing sightly irritated me – although struggle to think of a better word – habitat isn’t enough.  He did however, make me laugh on many occasions – here talking about pain (which of course is still only in your brain).

Someone punches you in the nose. It f*%@^king hurts! (Note that while I’ve used four symbols to replace only two letters, you still read it as “fucking” because of the past reading contexts your brain has encoded.)

He challenges us that the old adage seeing is believing is wrong. “is SEEING BELIEVING” it says in big letters – you have to look twice.  Another chapter deals with the physiology of assumptions and how limiting assuming things can be. We have to learn to see differently “by changing our past”, or more specifically “changing our future past”.  The neuroscience behind the concept of free will is beyond the scope of this book, so he doesn’t dwell on the subject – but concentrates on how we use our imagination and statistics to delude ourselves about past experience so we can ask “questions worth asking”.

The biggest challenge for me is accepting that there is nothing creative about creativity – but when you think about it in the simplest sense in that it’s the brain dealing with data – there isn’t. Lotto wants us to untrain our brains and in doing so open them up. To go from A to B via “not A” – he uses the example of the Wright brothers’ father insisting that they build a plane that won’t kill them as a prime example of this. It’s this combination of creativity balanced with efficiency that has allowed companies like Apple to dominate the way they do.

Lotto admits to us that this is a book of popular science, and his hip style and the design of the book suits that well, Deviate is easy to read and doesn’t contain too much esoteric language and succeeds on that level. However pitching the level at the pop sci level means that aside from the diagrams, there are plenty of quirky drawings and acres of type effects to distract the reader. Also, some of the concepts are a little woolly, and the later chapters get a little repetitive. I would have liked to delve just a little deeper into the neuroscience and psychology behind the concepts he discusses – setting the bar at Horizon level rather than the health magazine programme Trust me, I’m a doctor, to use a TV metaphor, could have made a better book.

I tried to find out a bit more about Beau Lotto – but apart from his own website and his Lab of Misfits website, there is no wikipedia page for him, no biographical details beyond his work. His Linked In profile lists him as a Neuroscientist and Entrepreneur and gives the same work profiles. This is a man who is very in control of our perception of him. His context is everything!

This book is fun and I really enjoyed reading it, however I wanted a bit more science and a bit less showbiz. (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy

Beau Lotto, Deviate (W&N, 2017) hardback, 332 pages incl notes and index

3 thoughts on “Opening the doors of perception…

  1. Susan Osborne says:

    Part of me wants to read this, the other part is put off by the ‘Neuroscientist and Entrepreneur’ self-description. I do love that first quote, though!

  2. AnnaBookBel says:

    The picture was hiding quotation marks above (I moved it), so I assume you were referring to the now second quote – which is great fun! This is a very light book – you’ll actually get a lot its basis from his 16 min TED talk on perception.

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