The Neuroscience of Perception - An Interview With Beau Lotto, Ph.D.

The Neuroscience of Perception - An Interview With Beau Lotto, Ph.D.

What follows is a transcript for the podcast Perception - Beau Lotto, Ph.D. - Neuroscience.

Topics within the interview include:

  • Are we seeing the world as it really is?
  • How our assumptions control our perceptions and what we can do to break free from assumptions that don't serve us.
  • Why our not seeing reality is essential in our ability to adapt and grow in uncertainty.
  • Ways to reshape our perception with perception itself.

Are We Seeing the World as It Really Is?

Dan Stickler, MD: Welcome to the Collective Insights podcast for Neurohacker Collective. I'm Dr. Dan Stickler, I'll be your host today. And today we have a great guest. This is a person that has been very influential in me progressing into the neuroscience and human potential aspects of health optimization. From the time I read his book back in 2017, but Beau Lotto is a neuroscientist. And I can't even just say neuroscientist, because he's an artist, he's expert in areas of consciousness relating to precision in awe and other aspects of how to get the attention of people working with businesses in that aspect.

But his research explores the ways in which we experience the world through our own versions of reality. And this is what first got my attention was in exploring, do we really see reality? Beau's book was very informative on that along with, I think you've had like three TED talks, which is just absolutely amazing. But he has a lab. What is it? The Lab of Misfits?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: That's right.

Dan Stickler, MD: And he does the coolest biohacking research. And every time I read something I'm just amazed at the depths that you go to to create these states for people. So, welcome.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Well, thank you. That's very, very kind of you. What a lovely, lovely introduction, and thank you for the opportunity and invitation to speak with you.

Dan Stickler, MD: Yeah, I'm excited. I've got tons of questions today and I know we have a short time window, so I may again, see if we can get you back at another time to dive even further, but let's talk about this main aspect of, are we actually seeing reality the way it is, or is this some construct of our own perception?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Are we seeing reality the way it is or through some construct? Well, it depends on what we mean by the way it is. First of all, there is a world. The world exists, in my view. There is a physical reality. The question is whether we actually even see it and do we see it accurately? I don't think we see the world as it is. And in fact, there's all kinds of research to suggest that that's the case. And I don't mean by that we see a filtered version, a reduced version of the world. I think we actually see a useful construct, something that was useful to see in the past.

We see a meaning and that meaning is grounded in history that history could have been a second ago, or it could have been a millennia ago. It's a meaning that's grounded in much of our history that was in fact even inherited. Example, the old phrase, if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? And the answer is no, it creates energy. The sound is a construct of your brain. If we didn't have a brain, if we didn't have ears, there would be no sound, but there would be energy. There would be vibration.

Dan Stickler, MD: Is that tree a true objective reality though? Or is that defined as objective reality, if there's no consciousness there to observe it?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Well, so the physical structure would exist. Does it have color? No. There's light that's reflected, there's light that's absorbed. And then of course, ultimately, if you think about what that tree is, it's an organization of molecules. And when does that organization of molecules, that density change from the air around it and to the tree. So eventually there's a blurry border between the tree and the air that's around it, which is also true for us. And then of course it has, what's the meaning of the tree, what's the meaning of this object?

Well, it has a potential infinite number of meanings, depending on who's looking at it from an ant's perspective, from our perspective. So yes, there's a physical world, but we don't see it in any literal sense.

Dan Stickler, MD: Daniel Schmachtenberger, one of the founders of Neurohacker Collective, introduced me to the concept of trans perspectival, the term trans perspectival. And it was having all of these multiple perspectives that come together to form a consensus perspective is what he was referring to. And he was referring not to multiple outside perspectives, but the interim perspective where we look at an object from the front, we look from the back, we look from the top, we look microscopically, we look microscopically and we collate that into a agreed upon within our own different perspectives, real analogy for us.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Sure. And you could also argue that reality has multiple layers. We can see the surface color. We can see that surface color is attached to something that's cylindrical. And then we can see that that cylinder is in fact a tree. We can see that the tree is part of a forest. We can see the functionality of that tree. And we can access these different possible meanings, in some sense simultaneously, but we can also see them in another sense independently and individually, but why would we need to see it this way? Why is this actually necessarily the case?

Because you could also argue that this is just for philosophy and I'd argue that it's not just philosophy. This is just in some sense physics. And the reason is because we have no access to the tree, we have no access to the actual surface reflectance of the tree. What we have access to is the light that's reflected from it. And that falls onto our retina, but the information that's falling onto our retina conflates multiple aspects of that tree. So for instance, it could be something that's small and up close or a bonsai and up close would project exactly the same as a very large tree far away.

From the information that falls onto your eye, your brain literally has no way of knowing. Let's say if it was an ash, so it had a light bark, it could be something that's a dark surface under a bright illumination, or it could be a light surface under a dark illumination. Both of those two different real world parameters would generate the exact same that's falling onto a retina. So your brain has no access to the sources of the information that we're receiving from the world, which means the only way we…

So, we can't see things directly, the only way we... But it has... Your listeners can actually do a little test on themselves to demonstrate that this is true. They can hold up their finger in front of their face, their index finger for instance, and they can move it towards them and away from them to line it up with something large and that's far away and tell their finger and that say tree is of the same size. Well, the fact is they're not the same size, but what they're doing is they're projecting at the same subtense onto their retina.

What this demonstrates is that information is meaningless, information that comes from the world conflates multiple aspects of that world. What's more, it doesn't come with instructions. It doesn't tell us what to do. So the only information, the other piece of information we have is history. What did that piece of data mean for my behavior in the past? What did I do that was useful in the past, when I was presented with this information and through millennia, we’ve been encoded with that useful way to behave towards stimuli.

So we come into the world with all kinds of assumptions that we inherited from our evolution ancestors. And then when we're born, we start constructing even more assumptions. And many of those assumptions we might inherit from our parents, that certain people are good or certain people are bad. And so, it's not just at the level of color, suddenly it's the level of the meaning of another person. And these assumptions then get encoded on our brain. Because that's all we have access to, these meanings are getting coded according to our history, but that's a beautiful thing.

A lot of people think, “Well this must be awful if I'm not seeing reality. Well, this is really scary then because what am I seeing then?" But imagine if we're just seeing in some sense, reality, there's only one thing to see. There's only one way to see. There's no basis for imagination or creative then. So by being able to, in a sense, make it up. That's what enables us to be creative and imaginative. And some imaginations, some creative ideas are better than others. It's not like this is postmodern relative. And some things will work better than others. But that enables us to discover that.

Dan Stickler, MD: You've spoken about how that is an evolutionary advantage. And when I talk to people about it, they're like, "How is that an evolutionary advantage to not see reality?"

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah. And this is why, because suddenly you can maybe use things in multiple ways. Suddenly a brick isn't just... This is one of the creativity tests. We're helping to develop the curriculum for a school in Budapest right now. And we're doing a creativity test on the kids. And so, it's a very standard divergent creativity test. And so, the task is to imagine a brick and your listeners can do this. Imagine you have a brick and your task is to think of as many different uses for this brick in a short amount of time.

Well, it's for building houses. But it could also be a really bad egg cracker or it could be the false tooth of a brick giant. Suddenly this brick has multiple potentially infinite meanings.

Dan Stickler, MD: I love that. That's the way education should be done for sure. No questions.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: I'd agree. I'd agree, yeah.

Our Brain and Uncertainty

Dan Stickler, MD: Now, one aspect of this that you talk about is the uncertainties. And can you go into why uncertainty is important and how we deal with it?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah. I have a very strong view about uncertainty. I personally think that almost every single behavior we do and not just us is an attempt to respond to the inherent uncertainty of being alive. From the level of the stimuli that's flying onto our eyes or in our nose or onto our skin or into our ears, which I was referring to before the fact that there's many things that can give rise to the same information. The way to the fact that the world changes. The world is constantly changing and we're experiencing massive change right now..

People in Ukraine they have experienced tremendous change right now. Of course COVID over the last three years, but this is not just true now or in the last three years with COVID, this is always true. This has always been the case because the world has always changed and it always will change. And we know from Buddhism, for instance, that change creates tremendous stress for people. And so, I would argue that our brain, and in fact, life is an attempt to deal with uncertainty. It's an attempt to predict what's going to happen in the next moment or the next year, maybe even the next 20 years.

And during evolution, the better you are able to predict, the more likely you could survive. And this is because, that if you couldn't predict you got selected out, which is one of the reasons why when we face uncertainty and we hate it because now you're actually, because we view the world through our evolved ancestors, you're viewing the world through their brain in many senses. When you're experiencing the moment of uncertainty, you're experiencing that moment when your ancestors would have increased the chance of dying.

Because now you can't predict, it's like, this is a bad idea, which is one of the reasons why people go to panic, which is why suddenly there's massive buying of toilet paper. During the COVID times in America, guns and things because people are trying to create certainty. So I would argue that almost every behavior is not only an attempt to deal with uncertainty, it's an attempt to decrease it in particular. Most of the time, not always, but much of the time.

Dan Stickler, MD: Going on that question or that statement. We are in, and we are a complex adaptive system and uncertainty, like you said, it's inherent in life. And so, what's the difference between the people who embrace uncertainty, because I think that's a beautiful aspect of life and people who fear uncertainty?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Well, there are lots of different differences between them. People who tend to be more neurotic tend to have a higher fear of uncertainty. Why? Is an interesting question. People who tend to be more extroverted may be more open to uncertainty. With that said, I personally think that in some sense, everyone has different fears of uncertainty and different ways of dealing with it and other uncertainties that they're perfectly comfortable with.

I'd argue maybe what defines a person is not whether or not they have a fear of uncertainty, is the nature of the uncertainties that they're afraid of. I'd imagine even in your own life, there's certain uncertainties that you find much more challenging than others. For some, it might be the loss of a job, the fear of income and others it might be fear of someone dying, or if you're a child, there could be all kinds of different fears, loss of a toy, their favorite toy.

There are all kinds of uncertainties that we can be dealing with. And so, which ones are actually the ones that actually are guiding your behavior? And so, is it that you have some people who are perfectly good with it and some people who aren't? Maybe on average, but I would argue that we all have different contexts where we're quite happy with uncertainty and other contexts maybe more where we're unhappy with uncertainty. And then far more, maybe a particularly interesting question as well is what happens of when that happens to you?

What do you do when you're faced with the uncertainty that you find challenging, and how can you actually manage to get through it? Because a lot of people think that what we should do is be able to sit with uncertainty. Well, in some sense, we should. We should become much more tolerant of not knowing. I celebrate not knowing. I think not knowing is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Whenever I do my professional speaking, I want people to know less at the end than they know at the beginning. Even in this podcast, because nothing interesting begins with knowing.

Can you think of one thing that you discovered in your life that didn't begin with not knowing? Almost by definition. How could you discover it if you already knew it? You had to not know it first. Not knowing is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And there are ways of being, and processes by which we cannot just deal with uncertainty, but thrive because of it. And that I think is another character of a person.

Why Information, in and of Itself, Is Meaningless

Dan Stickler, MD: Do you feel like information is ultimately the resolution of uncertainty and Claude Shannon, the mathematician who founded information theory, that was his statement, and I'm not sure I completely agree with that.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: No, because information is useful, but it's not meaningful. It's what you do with the information that makes it meaningful. It's how you respond in that moment that suddenly creates the meaning. I have three beautiful gremlins, they're this animation theory, 20, 21 and 23 at university in Bristol. And I’ve told them, and when I do one on ones with people and I work with people I say, "Look, often we review..." And I'm not the first person to say this by any means.

Often what happens is we reveal ourselves in moments of when things are difficult, but it's also where we can create ourselves." Because it's in that moment that how you respond, what's your default response reveals what your underlying assumptions and biases are, often that you don't even know you have much less what they are. But then in that moment you also have the choice. In fact, I would suggest that that's the time when we have the most choice when things are difficult. When things are easy, well, the response is obvious. Keep doing whatever it you’re doing.

In some sense you have no free will because you're obviously, unless you're a nihilist, you're going to keep doing what you were doing. But when things are really difficult, someone shouts at you, or you feel a sense of frustration or anything that instill something negative in you. At that moment, you can respond reflexively, according to your default assumptions. Maybe we go to anger or hate. Very natural in some sense, could be very useful in that moment. Depends on what the context is.

But you could also not do the obvious. You could also look away from the obvious. It's at that moment, and you have a choice and then what you do will become the meaning of that moment. If you respond with hate that information now means hate. If you respond with grace, suddenly that information means grace. The same piece of information have different meanings depending on how you respond to it, and that's what's going to get encoded in your brain and that's what will affect your future reflexes when you're presented with similar stimuli.

Understanding vs. Intelligence

Dan Stickler, MD: Do you think, and this is from my own experience, but I feel like uncertainty has increased as I've gained knowledge.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah, absolutely. That's because I think you're falling on the side of wisdom there. And in some sense, that's also just maybe a literal statement of truth. I have a wonderful friend, his name's Duane Michals. He’s probably the world's best known living photographer. How old is Duane now? He's 88, I think. And he tells me, as he gets older, he gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Because the world is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. He's embracing the wisdom of not knowing. And for me, I find that knowing things is not terribly interesting.

In that regard intelligence depends on how you define it, but it's not terribly interesting. Things that you can memorize from a book or facts and figures, things like this, but understanding is far more interesting. So as we get older, we can know less, but maybe we can understand more. And then we can embrace the fact that we don't know. And within that comes the humility. And I would argue that humility is the engine of creativity in many senses because humility embraces the not knowing.

And it's again, only from not knowing that you can create anything new, but if you're always knowing, if you're always this arrogant person that I know everything, how can you ever create something new from that position?

Dan Stickler, MD: And that's what you work with with these companies is how they can get that innovation going with things like play. Right?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: For instance. Yes. I do a lot of work with senior leadership teams. For me, I'm very interested in working with the top leaders of organizations, whether they be political or financial or educational. And the reason is because those leaders create the culture that will enable innovation, but to do so, they have to engage in a certain way to create that culture. They have to lead by example, admit mistakes, various other things, but they have to create an environment that embraces not knowing. Not that that environment just sits there, because eventually you need to get to what I call closure.

So yes, we work with these brands and organizations in order to not just have them be more successful at whatever it is they do. You get that for free when you create an environment of what I call perceptual intelligence. But what also you get is someone who actually has a more fulfilling life. You also get an organization that has a stronger reason to exist. That's actually adding value to the world through its processes or products, etc. And it’s empowering that value in their audiences. And you get that by getting them to embrace and engage with uncertainty because they're constantly facing it.

Dan Stickler, MD: And you said that play is one of the areas where uncertainty is the greatest thing for us and we thrive with that uncertainty in that situation. Aside from being in a corporate team, how can an individual cultivate that creativity and innovation within themselves by designing play?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: First of all, there isn't a set of rules. So often people are looking for rules and I try to avoid giving people rules because have you ever been successful by following a recipe? Well maybe if you're a sous chef, but a chef has never been. They create the recipes; they don't necessarily follow the recipes. It's the distinction between you want to be a chef rather than a sous chef. There's nothing wrong with being a sous chef. It's a very important role, but if you want to be creative and innovative, you need to be the chef, and that's a mindset.

More than that, it's a way of being in the world. It's a way of being that transcends whether you're at work, you don't turn it on when you walk through the door of your office, this is how you engage with your partner. This is how you engage with your children if you have them, with your friends, with anyone. It's a way of being. And it's a way of being that actually seeks understanding, that actually seeks conflict, creative conflict. Doesn't avoid it, but avoids the tendency to not want to move in conflict.

That seeks discovery, that seeks understanding, because when you seek that understanding, when you seek discovery, then you're engaging in the world with curiosity, you're engaging in the world with questions rather than with answers. And in order to adopt that mindset that is effectively science. It's a scientific mindset, but what is science? Science is this way of being, it's the space where we actually love uncertainty. We're open to possibilities. It's inherently collaborative. It's intrinsic rewarding. Well, these are the same parameters that actually define play.

Science is nothing other than play with intention. Play has no intention by definition. So if you layer intention into play, now you have science, but I'd argue, you also have everything that is creative. I'd say it's all play with intention, right?

How States of Awe Affect the Brain

Dan Stickler, MD: Yeah. And that creative piece, I can remember, you did a talk where you were doing brain scans on people at a Cirque du Soleil event and you were assessing the brain activity following in periods of awe. And it was interesting to me that the prefrontal cortex turned down, but then you saw a sudden increase in the right hemisphere activity of brain.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yes. Well-remembered. This is a study we did with Cirque. First of all, Cirque was great to work with, wonderful to work with. And we've done a number of studies with lots of other organizations, and this one was all about the power of awe and wonder. And people have been asking for hundreds of years, what is awe and wonder. And some people like Jonathan Haidt had been exploring this question and they had some very important insights and ways of thinking about it and finding it.

But no one had really captured it using brain recordings, much less actually the other findings that we were actually building upon their initial findings. And what we discovered is that, as you say, the prefrontal cortex went down, but their default mode network increased. So it’s as if they felt more conscious and aware of their thinking about their place in the world. And then shortly after that, their prefrontal cortex became more active in a particular asymmetrical way that was correlated with wanting to step forward into the world.

So it's as if you're thinking, and you're thinking about your identity, how you're connected to the world and now you want to step forward into it. Related to that, people's tolerance to risk increased. They wanted to take more risk. They didn't have such a need for certainty. They were more comfortable with sitting with uncertainty. They actually even changed their perception of themselves historically. We asked them afterwards, are you use someone who's more likely to experience awe? People after the performance were more likely to say yes than before the performance.

In other words, they actually changed their perception of who they are in relation to awe and wonder, they became more prosocial. They're more willing to support others, more willing to open the door for another person. And in fact, I would argue it's one of our most powerful perceptions, which can actually be weaponized by the way, awe like empathy is not necessarily itself a good thing. It could be good or bad depending on how you apply it. And I can give you all kinds of examples of how it can be weaponized, but thinking about the positive, it facilitates creativity.

It makes you want to step forward into not knowing. As Duane says, it gives us the courage to overcome our cowardice.

Dan Stickler, MD: Love that. I have two questions that come out that I'm thinking of as you're talking there, one is on the default mode network. I want to come back to that. But the other thing I wanted to mention, and we work with awe with our clients all the time. Our metric every year to say whether the client has progressed with the quality of life inventory, where we check off areas of play, creativity, love, relationship, finances, work, all of that. And we work with them during the year when we see areas that are suboptimal for them.

But when we work with them, we take them into these awe experiences. But the state of awe, which I think it was Keltner, that was the main researcher, he talks about how awe can also be fear. And I've always thought of awe as just this feeling that wouldn't be fear in my dictionary, but I can see that when they talk about it. And when they talk about seeing a volcano or seeing Hitler, people actually experienced awe when seeing Hitler, but it was a fear based awe.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: This is right. This is true. It's when you feel small at one level, but also connected to the world around you. And so, yes, people, for instance, World War II when the Blitzkrieg would be happening, they would pour this sense of awe and wonder at this massive thing that's beyond them outside of their control, that they can't really explain. And they have to change their perspective in order to explain it. This is one of the ways that Keltner and Haidt tried to define awe, as opposed to wonder, as opposed to surprise.

But what's also interesting is that as a consequence, it can actually be used to manipulate. For instance, the military parades, that's designed to generate a sense of awe. Well, what happens? Well, now you become open to suggestion. You feel connected to the people around you. It's a great way of creating a sense of bonding or patriotism, etc. And then now I'm more willing to listen to whatever it is the leader's telling me. Churches use awe and wonder. It's one of the reasons why you have the dome, the architecture is for sound.

So the choir's voice would go up who couldn't be seen would go up into the sky and then reflect back down onto the congregation from the dome, so you had all this amazing sound coming from above. That creates awe and wonder. Now you feel connected to the congregation and more willing to listen to the priest or whoever is the person speaking. And now you can use it in that regard. We've actually used it in the lab to actually in some sense, manipulate behavior.

We were working with Charles Koch in some sense, people might say surprisingly enough, because they maybe have very different views of ours. But with that said, we're working on toleration. So for us, it was important to work with a group of people who maybe have different views, but it turns out, as everything, it's always more complex. We collaborated on a study of how do you get people who have differences to speak to each other? We look to see; could we use awe to facilitate toleration towards difference. And we were able to. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to agree.

But how do you know if you can agree if you can't actually sit and have a conversation? How can you... I always think it's very important, this slight divergence, but I always want to separate validation from understanding. If you're seeking understanding, you can talk to anyone. If you're seeking validation, there are very few people you can speak to. But how do you know you can validate someone if you don't actually understand them? And to understand another person is not just to know what they did or where they did it's to know why they did it.

And sometimes they don't even know why. We often don't know why we do what we do. So first, you have to get that understanding and then you can say, "Okay, now I understand. God, based on that perspective, that makes complete sense. I want to disagree with your perspective though, but I can see how it's internally consistent as much as I don't agree with it. " And by engaging with that awe and wonder that curiosity that enables you to get that understanding of other people, because sometimes you completely misread the situation. This happens in couples all the time.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Most arguments are over arguments of meaning what happened, but why it happened.

Dan Stickler, MD: Yeah, I experience that myself.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: I find that very surprising. I think it's called being human.

Dan Stickler, MD: Right. And you were talking about, in one of your, think it was a TED talk, you were talking about how when people have beliefs and you're presenting them with all of the obvious evidence that that belief is inaccurate, you actually reinforce their belief. Whereas if you take the approach you just talked about, you actually have a much greater chance of having them reevaluate that belief.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yes. You're absolutely right. Often not for everyone, but often if we're in a disagreement and I present you evidence to show you're wrong, very likely you're going to hold even stronger to your view. In some sense, I've pushed you from an idea to a belief, to a religion, to faith. Because ultimately if you have no evidence to confirm what you believe, the only thing you have is faith. Or once you have a faith based belief, then you can't shift or you can, but it's very difficult to shift someone because by definition, you can't present any evidence to convince them.

And this is so often the case when people try to convince another person, it’s called information deficit approach. Scientists, we used to consult for the UK government on how scientists could communicate climate change information to the public. Because this is something that my lab does and I do with public and communication science. And the argument was, don't just use data to try to convince someone. That's what you do, maybe for a scientist or people who have that ilk, but that's not going to convince someone who doesn't have that perspective.

It needs to be presented in a different way. So, yes, if you present people with evidence in an argument where they don't want to shift, especially when they tie their identity to it, they're often more likely to hold onto it unless they're seeking understanding. A lot of times in conflict people say, "Well, what you should do is find common ground, so you and I might be in conversation." It's like, well, I'd be thinking of Arsenal as in the football team, as in soccer team in London. But I don't know. Seahawks, I was born in Seattle.

We might agree, “You like the Seahawks." "I like the Seahawks." "That's interesting." Okay. I'm trying to find common ground. Now, let's talk about Trump. Suddenly what I've really done is just manipulated you. I've lured you into thinking that we have an agreement and now, that was never my intention. What I wanted to do was to confront you on something that I disagreed with.

But if I went to you and said, "You know what, I just disagree with everything you're saying, but I really truly want to understand why you feel this way because I might learn something or I might be wrong myself or in the very least I'll understand you better and I'll know you better." My feeling is that people are far more likely to engage now and far more likely to trust the other person. When you approach simply with honesty and humility, then justifying common cause in order to then pull the rug out from underneath them.

Dan Stickler, MD: That's where our society has gone completely away from the debate has been the greatest learning experience in human history. From the Greeks to Benjamin Franklin's Junto. And debate was about discussions and knowledge and not about trying to convince somebody of something and now with all the cancel culture and with all the polarization that we're getting, cancel culture is essentially eliminating debate from our society right now. And it's scary that we're going down that road.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: It's so true. Now, in some sense, I'm a believer in a debate and like in most of my answers to anything, it's always a yes and a no. I think debate's a wonderful thing, but also I think it can also be a futile thing. So whenever I get into conversation with someone and especially in my lab with someone, for instance, Rich Clarke, who we've been working here for ages. We will constantly get in conflict and debates. But we love it. And the reason is because I will question what he's saying, but he knows it's not because I doubt him or I don't trust him.

It's because I'm trying to understand it. The only way I can understand is by probing it, probing it with a question. Like, "That doesn't make sense. What about this? What about that?" And it's not that I'm doubt... Again, to reiterate. It's not because I'm doubting and he doesn't hear it as me doubting. He doesn't get defensive like, "Wait a minute." He doesn't take it as a personal thing. He understands that I'm trying... And I understand the very same thing from him. That's debate. But what I don't like about debate is the attempt to convince. Because what that is trying to do is to stand still.

And now you have a tug of war. It's two people basically trying to pull the other person to their side and then you have a so-called winner. But again, things are always more complex. There's always going to be an element of truth in both sides. In fact, yet another side that hasn't even been considered. What I am passionate about in debate and conversation is movement because life is movement, things that stand still die. So I find it super ironic that people are always trying to stand still because in nature, if you stand still, you got selected out. Why wouldn't you want to move?

How awful to actually be static all your life, how awful would that be? And relationships that remain static often just die. If not in the short term, in the long term. They need to be in movement. People need to be in movement and the only way you do that is by getting in conversation and trying to understand.

Dan Stickler, MD: I actually will take a side that I don't believe in sometimes when I'm talking with somebody, if I'm in complete agreement with them, but I'll take the opposite approach with them, and just so I can see what their reasoning is behind it. And it's been a lot of fun.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah, absolutely. And again, in my lab and other people, I agree, I do the same thing because I find I myself, don't understand why I have the view. I might have a very strong view and very quickly through a conversation, I realize that I don't actually knew what I thought I knew or that I had all kinds of assumptions. Now, sometimes I'll come back to the same view, but now I have a far better understanding of why I have it in the first place. It was maybe just an intuition, but I held so strongly to that to intuition I just assumed it to be the laws of physics.

But it wasn't. Most of our beliefs aren't laws of physics. They're moveable. Thank goodness.

Dan Stickler, MD: Well, beliefs are the... What is it? It's the one subjective reality that is ours, right?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yes.

Dan Stickler, MD: We own.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Well, or we inherit.

Dan Stickler, MD: Inherit, true.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Right? But we behave as if we own it. And we behave as if it's true.

Using Psychedelics to Shift Our Pereception

Dan Stickler, MD: And we've jumped around on a lot of topics because I just wanted to get people exposed to these different areas that you're really putting the research into. But I want to close out with an area that I'm very curious about, and this is psychedelics. And in our clinic, we use ketamine and we will actually use it during neuromodulation. We will do neuro stimulation with different modalities. And then we'll have them do ketamine nasal spray before the treatment. And we've found that the neuroplasticity goes through the roof of this stuff.

And I think there was recent study and this was springing back to the DMN, default mode network question I had. In a lot of these studies, they're seeing that anxiety and depression are getting coded into the default mode network and they're very locked in and the medications aren't disrupting that network, they're just putting the band aid on it. But they're finding with the psychedelics, psilocybin, LSD, ketamine, and even to some degree MDMA, that it is disrupting the default mode network to allow the brain to access a different response, a different way of looking at something rather than being in that default mode.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: That's right. That's exactly right. I'm a fan in some sense of these, but again, I'm also not wary of them. I'm wary of how they can be used because they can also be used in a way that doesn't facilitate people. And I'll explain maybe the differences between those two. But yes, just to agree and maybe build on what you're saying as far as kicking people out of a cycle. People can think that as a metaphor for the brain, in some sense, it's almost a little metaphor that the activity in your brain, you get a stimulus and your brain will generate a pattern.

Think of that pattern like a whirlpool. Everyone knows what a whirlpool is. It's called a stable state. It's called a formula of an attractors state. So an emergent consequence of the interacting of stuff, your brain cells are interacting. You get a whirlpool in your brain, a pattern of activity. And now the stimulus comes again and the Whirlpool happens again and again and again, and now think of that whirlpool getting deeper and deeper and deeper. Now, before it can only just move a log, but now it can move a whole ship. It's going to get trapped. It has real power.

Now, the deeper the whirlpool, the harder it is to get out of it. And the more likely that the stimulus is going to come in and go to the same place. So what could be happening with certain, metaphorically, at least with certain antidepressants is just trying to shallow the whirlpool, as opposed to now shaking the water. Imagine shaking the water. It's like the whirlpool's disrupted for a moment. Now it means that when a new stimulus comes in, a slightly different pattern can now form, has the potential of forming.

So when psilocybin can help keep people out of depression for a significant period of time, in some sense, it's not because the psilocybin is kicking around for six months. It's because if I'm trapped in this whirlpool and if I'm feeling depressed and if you're looking at me in a neutral way, I'm more likely to see your face as not neutral, even angry or something negative towards me. Even though you're complete... Everyone else would say neutral, I'd say negative because I'm feeling depressed.

Now suddenly if I kicked myself out of that, well maybe I see you as neutral because if I saw you as negative, maybe I respond to you in a negative way as well. And then in doing so, well, you respond to me because, hey, I was just frowning. I was upset, and it's contagious. Now, suddenly, it's like everyone who’s around me is negative. Well, we create in some sense what we feedback. So now I see your face as neutral. My goodness, he's behaving towards me not like I thought. Now I behave towards you a little bit more positively, that causes you to behave towards me positive.

Now we start a positive feedback cycle that slowly takes me out. And that was because I disrupted the whirlpool. I added some noise through creating more connections.

Dan Stickler, MD: Is that what you were seeing in the people with the states of awe, when you talked about the increased activity with default mode network, was that a similar shaking up of that water?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: It depends. It could be, yes. It could be suddenly creating the opportunity now to respond differently. And that's the power of it. Now I'm set up to say, "Okay, give me that thing that was previously negative maybe I'm going to now respond to it differently." Now it's my response that creates a meaning for it. That meaning becomes what I call, it's your future past. What you do now becomes part of your future past. If everything you're doing now is a consequence of your past, then what you do now becomes part of your future past.

You're effectively determining your future reflexes by how you respond now. So how can it be used in maybe not such a good way? Well, when people use these substances, in some sense to revisit their traumas, that can be important when working with certain individuals, but where they continue to resurface these things over and over and over again, with the sense that they think that they're actually doing something by doing that. And it's very important to look at these things, again, with support and in the right way, etc. But that isn't enough.

One then has to act upon it, do something with it. I talk about how sadness is not what keeps us in bed. It can give us the motivation to get out of bed. We don't get shape in order to live, we get in shape while living.

Dan Stickler, MD: Love that. We're coming up at the end here and I would love to, at some point, come back to this and actually dive into all the five topics as one entire podcast in some way. It's my personal desire. But to close out, tell us something exciting that you're working on now, something that's really got your all going.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah. Well, we're doing a number of different projects. There's one where we're working on the power of silence. This is for a brand, a group. And that's very interesting, the power of silence. And it turns out that silence isn’t significant in of itself, it's contrast, it's having silence in relation to noise. Similarly, we're working on a project on home love, the power of the home for decreasing anxiety. And we're also, we just finished a study on, and we're going to continue with it, on chronic pain. And how might we be able to help people who are experiencing chronic pain?

And to what extent is chronic pain a consequence of uncertainty and a way of dealing with uncertainty in other aspects of one's life. And so, where the emotional becomes somatic becomes physical and that emotional source could be uncertainty. These are some of the... And people listening to the podcast, they can actually take part in these experiments actually on the lab's website.

Dan Stickler, MD: And what is that website?

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: The lab's website is the

Dan Stickler, MD: Great.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: And we're also doing other experiments, like you're on your deathbed looking back, what is it that you want to see? What is your life purpose? And then correlating that with how people deal with uncertainty.

Dan Stickler, MD: That's beautiful.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Yeah.

Dan Stickler, MD: Can't wait to see the data coming out of that one. All right. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to share such great information with us and to let us come away knowing less than what we came with.

Beau Lotto, Ph.D.: Wonderful. Bring us back all full circle.

Dan Stickler, MD: Yeah.

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