“I want you to know less at the end of this talk than you think you do now. Nothing interesting begins with knowing, it begins with doubt.”
This was how Dr. Beau Lotto began his speech on Tuesday, June 28, addressing a group of nearly 100 employees at Viacom Headquarters. “The Neuroscience of Creativity” promised to help unlock our best ideas using perceptual awareness.
Confused by this nebulous description? So was I. But through the course of an hour, Lotto methodically demonstrated the stages of creativity, taking us through biology, human evolution, and social constructs. By the end of his talk, I knew far less than I did when I sat down.
Some might think this is a strange result of a scientific lecture, but Lotto is a renegade of scientific academia. He’s built a career out of making neuroscience—the study of the brain and nervous system—accessible to those of us without PhDs. His speeches distill complex topics like brain chemistry and cognitive function using art, puzzles, and storytelling.
Lotto currently works as a “creator in residence” at the Viacom Lab, which ventures into audience engagement. Lotto, along with fellow innovators such as FlickerLab founders Harold Moss and Tom Vede, and contemporary artist Raghava KK, uses his brilliant mind and Viacom’s creative assets to develop immersive fan experiences. The Viacom Lab created an interactive TMNT Lair on Airbnb, allowing fans to literally plunge into the TMNT universe.
Like his work in the lab, Lotto’s lecture was an immersive, sensory experience.
You are about to be eaten by bears. Or maybe a cougar…
“How many bears do you see?” Lotto asked. We shouted out numbers. Most people saw four or five bears.
“Look differently,” encouraged Lotto. “There are 11 bears hiding there.”
Most of us have been exposed to optical illusions since childhood. But these rudimentary images play a crucial role in understanding perception.
“To understand perception is not just to understand how the brain works,” said Lotto. “It’s to understand what it’s like to be human.”
Lotto’s next example was more dramatic. He showed us a grainy, black-and-white image and asked if we could find the predator.
“If you haven’t found it, you’re dead—especially the front row.” The amphitheater was still perplexed. “It’s staring right at you,” said Lotto, before switching to the next slide. It was the same image, but with color. Now most people could discern the panther crouching in the front of the drawing. Lotto was correct—the predator was dangerously close to those of us sitting in the front row.
“Ninety percent of the information your brain uses to see comes from grayscale,” said Lotto. This explains why we were unable to see the panther when the image was black and white. As Lotto put it, when it comes to vision, our eyes are essentially useless. That’s why they can be easily tricked by optical illusions.
According to Lotto, “Data alone is meaningless.” Data, like the futile transmission of grayscale images our eyes processed when we looked at the panther, does nothing without context. “Your brain did not evolve to see absolutes,” said Lotto. “Your brain evolved to find differences.”
Since our eyes cannot be trusted to discern the absolute—in this case, the cougar—our brains adapted to recognize differences—like the nuances of shades that reveal the cougar crouching in the dark.
Is free will an illusion?
Our brains adapted to keep us safe. Thousands of years ago, humans needed to contextualize situations to avoid danger—like being attacked by panthers.
We may not realize it, but, according to Lotto, our actions are merely reflexes based upon our past experiences.
“You have no free will about what you’re doing right now,” said Lotto. “Everything is a reflex, grounded in assumptions. It comes from your personal and evolutionary history.”
According to Lotto, our ingrained reflexes make us just like this frog:
These reflexes keep us alive, but they also become barriers to seeing differently. To prove this, Lotto asked us to perform a reading test.
“Read what you see,” said Lotto.
We seemed to unanimously fail; automatically filling in the missing consonants until we read “What are you reading?”
But Lotto asked us to read what we saw. What we saw was gibberish, and our minds translated it for us. Since the context was about reading, we didn’t notice this other phrase hiding in the letters:
What are you dreaming?
In the next test, Lotto asked us to assign meaningless names “KiKi” and “BuBu” to two unidentified shapes.
We named the sharp, spikey image “KiKi” and the round, curvy blob “BuBu.” Lotto says we’re not alone—98 percent of people surveyed in this test agreed.
“It just sounds right,” murmured people in the audience. In other words, our response was a reflex. Through years of living on the planet, humans learned to associate pain with sharpness and safety with softness. Our brains evolved to recognize sharpness and softness in many different forms. Now, we instinctively attribute soft-sounding words to round images, and harsh syllables with jagged shapes.
“This is the basis of metaphor,” said Lotto. “If I gave you the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ you’d associate KiKi with hate, and BuBu with love.”
The logic behind the creative process…
Biologically speaking, creativity is dangerous. We rely on preconceived notions to keep us safe. To be creative is to go against thousands of years’ of assumptions. That’s why creativity is spawned from working with mixed groups of people, according to Lotto.
“What does a question do in your brain?” Lotto asked. “Questions disrupt.”
Lotto gave the example of two groups. Group A is more diverse, although the participants have a lower IQ. Group B is homogeneous, and the members have a higher IQ.
Lotto would rather work with group A. Why? “Our range of possibility is increased when we work with people from different backgrounds,” said Lotto.
Asking questions is also fundamental to creativity. “What does a question do in your brain?” Lotto asked. “Questions disrupt.” Questions create doubt, which challenge our biases. When we change our biases, we change what is possible to create.
After absorbing Lotto’s words, I tried to understand how this might foster creativity. I imagined a scenario. One of the founders of Uber might have asked, “Why create a new way to hail a taxi, when there are so many readily available in my city?” His co-founder may have responded by saying, “I live on the outskirts of town, where there aren’t as many ways to get around.”
This hypothetical conversation illuminates several points of Lotto’s message. The man asking the question clearly had a bias—he grew up in an area like Manhattan, where taxis were on every street corner. His bias prevented him from seeing the merit in a concept like Uber, where residents of lower-populated areas could easily book a car service. But thanks to his co-founder’s different life experience, he was able to overcome his bias and create one of the most innovative services in the 21st century. And none of this would have been revealed had he not asked a question.
“The best person to reveal your assumptions is not you,” said Lotto, “But somebody else.”
Finally, creativity may actually have a place in evolution.
Lotto explained that nature’s response to uncertainty is play. It’s hard to find a form of play that isn’t intrinsically motivated. Nearly everything we do in society is motivated by an external need—besides activities like playing sports or listening to music.
“What’s the point of snowboarding except to snowboard?” Lotto asked.
Now you’ve unlocked your creative potential. Share it with the world on Traces.
Lotto finished his lecture by discussing his augmented reality app, Traces. He described it as a way of “using digital to get people away from digital.” Most of us are now familiar with the concept after the release of Pokémon Go, but Lotto’s app is a bit more engaging than the beloved Nintendo game.
Traces allows users to place multimedia messages—be it art, text, or a video—in clouds set to specific locations. You can send somebody a message, but it doesn’t go to them directly. It appears in a cloud of water on a map, and the recipient must travel to the destination to unlock the content.
Lotto says this interactive feature gives users a higher sense of pleasure than simply opening a video or text message. “When you put effort into something,” said Lotto, “You perceive it to have higher value. It’s called the IKEA effect.” This elicited laughter from the audience. Many of us can relate to the arduous process of setting up a simple desk, only to cherish the unvarnished piece of furniture like a family heirloom.
All joking aside, the possibilities are extraordinary for Traces. It’s changing the way we broadcast media, making it a more inclusive process. The Viacom Lab has captured Dabs Myla’s art installation in a series of photos that are hovering in clouds outside of Viacom Headquarters, so we’re able to share our internal art with curious pedestrians. Lotto says you can also use Traces to create a scavenger hunt for your children when they get home from school.