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Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently
Author: Beau Lotto
APA Style Citation
Lotto, B (2017). Deviate: The science of seeing differently. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion Publishing Group Ltd.
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We often think of perception as the sum of our sensory inputs, but Beau Lotto turns that on its head and suggests that what you view as reality is, in fact, based in large part on prior expectations of what you see, hear, touch taste and smell. In Deviate, Lotto sets out to help us understand how our brain processes new information and makes meaning of it. Lotto’s research into neuroscience allows him to utilize his 25 years of research experience, much comes from the Lab of Misfits, which he founded at the Science Museum of London to explore, “how we see and why we see what we do.” Lotto indicates that the word Deviate has many negative connotation, but in fact, he proposes that nothing new ever occurs without active doubt. Lotto purports that deviance is a positive way of looking at the world through a different perspective, which can lead to a broader understanding of reality.
Lotto points to the famous dress incident that was an internet sensation a few years back. While some were convinced that the dress was blue and black, others were convinced that it was white and gold. Everyone saw the same dress, but came away with different perceptions. More recently, the “Laurel/Yanny” phenomenon caused the same uproar, but for auditory rather than visual perception. We often believe that our truth is the same as others. As Plato illustrates in the Allegory of the Cave, we may never know the truth unless we can perceive something from all perspectives, which is impossible because of our prior experiences with the world. Our reality is highly subjective; Lotto makes the analogy to driving in a mobile home and taking in information through our senses by looking out the windows. We can move the mobile home to get a better view, but we will never experience the whole of something without stepping outside of the mobile home.
Similarly, our experiences no matter how extensive, will never give us a full view of the world so, in order to make sense of our daily experiences, we must rely not just on our senses, but also on our prior knowledge. Without this mechanism, our world would be chaos because our mind could not keep up with the onslaught of incoming information. If you are reading subtitles as you watch a movie, and run across the word f*%@ing, you have a pretty good idea that something vulgar has been said, even though most of the word is made up of symbols. Letters only take on meaning based on our prior learning and use of combining letters into words and words into meaningful units.
Russians perceive red with greater discrimination than English speakers because the word choices in the Russian language are more nuanced in this area. Similarly, many English speakers cannot roll a Spanish r and do not hear the difference because they have not encountered these sounds before. We now know that Western societies differ in their eye movements from those from Eastern societies. Asians extract visual information more holistically, while Westerners view objects more analytically. Lotto argues that, “context is everything” and indicates that we must learn not what to see but rather how to look in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world in which we live. Our prior experiences can also change our internal biological mechanisms. This was demonstrated by a famous study conducted by Rosenzweig in which rats were placed into either an enriched or deprived environment for ten weeks. At the conclusion of the study, those in an enriched environment had a thicker cerebral cortex, while those in the deprived environment had a thinner cerebral cortex with fewer neural connections. These types of life experiences have unfortunately been found in humans from Romanian orphanages and cases of severe neglect often with similar results. In some cases, when removed from these environments, the children caught up to normal developmental landmarks but their memory, inhibition, and visualization still lacked behind others.
Our brains allow us to imagine the world and its possibilities as we experience it like no one else. We can create new perceptions by creating stories as children often do. These can seem realistic and add to our future interpretations of the world. We sometimes misperceive the world, perhaps imagining motion where none exists, such as in the phi phenomenon or the autokinetic effect. Because of our cognitive biases, Lotto argues that we do not have access to reality but we can use this lack of reality to unleash creativity and see the world in new and different ways that will continue to allow for new inventions and thinking unbounded by expectations. Travel opens our minds to new realities, and if one cannot travel, they can travel in their mind, which can achieve similar results. Lotto uses the example of the backward brain bicycle (see resources) to demonstrate how we can learn to change our brain with continual practice. We can look for reasons that do not support our existing schemas but rather, challenge what we think we know. We can question others and ask why we should believe what we think we know instead of giving into the confirmation bias. Lotto refers to this as courageous intervention. This courageous intervention is what Lotto means when he encourages us to Deviate.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Additive color mixing
Rubber hand illusion
Trial and eror
Other Related Resources:
Talks at Google: Beau Lotto “Deviate”
Lab of Misfits
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Things Differently
The Washington Post: Why our Grasp of Reality is Fragile
Apple Podcasts: The Science of Seeing Differently
Quartz: A neuroscientist explains why we can’t see the world objectively
Backward Brain Bicycle