Lab of Misfits. It sounds like a rock band, right? Or an experimental theater group. Both answers are wrong, but don’t feel bad. We all perceive things in different ways, and that’s the focus of Lab of Misfits, a New York-based “experiential research lab” where neuroscientist Beau Lotto and his colleagues study perception: Why we perceive the world as we do and how we can see it differently.
“I’m interested in how the brain makes meaning,” says Lotto, Lab of Misfits’ founder and CEO, “and whether we can apply those principles to create spaces and opportunity for people to see themselves, the world, and others in new ways.”
Lotto’s work is well-known. In addition to his research, he’s the author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, he’s appeared on programs for PBS and the National Geographic Channel, and he’s given two TED Talks, which have racked up more than 5 million views combined. Lotto also works with corporations to boost innovation and creativity, and he’s the founder and CEO of Ripple, Inc., a company that’s focused on augmented reality.
Lotto is currently conducting research on tolerance, which is timely: Hate crimes in the United States rose for the third straight year in 2017, the FBI announced in November 2018. And as political views become more polarized, more Americans say that it’s stressful to discuss politics with people they disagree with than they did two years ago, the Pew Research Center recently reported. Lotto’s work will focus on the neurological reasons for tolerance as well as intolerance.
“We’re trying to discover the general principles in which people are intolerant, and also what happens in the brain when someone is intolerant versus tolerant,” says Lotto, a professor at the University of London and a visiting professor at New York University. “The larger aim, ultimately, is to create programs that facilitate toleration.”
Politicians and social media trolls may be easy scapegoats for intolerance, but the bigger issue is our brains. Humans aren’t good at seeing the world as it really is, says Lotto, and we all possess a variety of entrenched biases and assumptions. To break free of those biases, you first need to need to be aware of them—and for most people, that’s not easy.
“People don’t want to know that they have these biases and assumptions because once they do, they maybe have to do something about them,” says Lotto. “It requires a certain level of responsibility. So it’s much easier to have a lack of awareness, because a lack of awareness doesn’t require responsibility.”
The best person to reveal your biases usually isn’t you. “It’s usually someone from a different background, a different history, a different way of thinking,” says Lotto. The problem, however, is that most of us live in bubbles, whether they’re political bubbles, social media bubbles, religious bubbles, or economic bubbles.
“Those bubbles are incredibly reassuring,” says Lotto, “because the fundamental problem the brain evolved to solve is uncertainty. And I would argue that almost any living system evolves to deal with uncertainty and the ambiguity of data.” As Lotto often says in his talks, if early humans weren’t sure that a predator was a predator, it was usually too late. They became dinner. So the brain evolved to make uncertainty seem certain. And in a constantly changing world, we maintain that certainty by creating a world that doesn’t change.
“Behavior becomes completely automatic,” he says. “I go to the same car. I go to the same restaurant. I talk to the same people.”
But don’t despair. Breaking free from old ideas, and challenging ourselves, can be empowering—and stimulating for our brains.
“It’s like a skateboarder learning tricks,” Lotto says. “A skateboarder almost always fails. We quantified this. We went to a skateboard park. They only did 25 percent of their tricks correctly. They’re constantly failing, but they’re loving it. It’s as if they’re expanding their ability to fail, and every once in a while, they start incorporating a successful trick. So I think people get challenged by becoming aware, because then you have to do something.”
Change usually begins with a question, with doubt, or an accidental observation. “It’s the person who is willing to say, ‘Oh, wait. This is not what I expected. Let’s pursue this a bit.’ Like Galileo pointing a telescope out to the sky and discovering that we’re not the center of the universe. But this is also true in every individual life. It begins with doubt and the desire to understand. The brain takes on a certain state when it does that, and when it grows, we get a tremendous sense of rush. The brain likes that sense of growth.”
And yes, that growth can lead to more tolerant people.