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Reshaping the human brain: a guide to finding freedom in delusion and creation in chaos

A new book aims to help us deviate from the bounds of perception and awaken from habitual thought patterns.

We live in an age of uncertainty. If the triumphs of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Trump have taught us anything, it is that the world is deviating from our core assumptions. Perhaps that means we must deviate with it. Not necessarily in the same direction (certainly not the direction of bigotry and alternative facts), but in ways that allow us to adapt to the unexpected.

A new book, Deviate, by the neuroscientist Beau Lotto, offers intriguing solutions, not only for surviving but also for succeeding in a world that seems to blindside us at every turn. Lotto, an academic at University College London and founder of “Lab of Misfits” – described as the world’s first public perception research space – explores decades of research on the human brain to provide a map for navigating an unmappable reality. And he says the future entails shaking ourselves up, awakening from habitual thought patterns, rejecting the conventional wisdom. In short: deviating.

The book’s first tenet sounds alarming. Neuroscience, the author explains, teaches us that it is impossible to grasp reality, that information is meaningless; and we will, in fact, know less after reading Deviate than before. Being delusional, in short, defines the human condition. We think we see the world as it is, but this is quickly shown to be nonsense when we consider that the humble stomatopod (a marine crustacean) has 16 visual pigments with which to make sense of its environment, whereas we have three.

Perception is a function of evolution, rather than reality. “We developed only to process light in a way that worked best for our species,” Lotto says. Likewise, “pain is not a physically separate, external phenomenon. Like colour and everything else we experience in our awareness, pain takes place in the brain and nowhere else.” In this way, ancient tropes of literature and philosophy – all is illusion, life is but a dream – are being proved correct by 21st-century brain research.

Don’t despair, Lotto urges: rather delight. Find freedom in delusion and creativity in chaos. By understanding the how and why of the brain, we can free ourselves from hard-wired beliefs that shackle us to corrosive thought patterns and behaviours. By accepting that what we once mistook for “the truth” is merely a set of assumptions that have helped organisms survive through millions of years of evolution, we can begin to challenge such precepts, many of which have outlived their utility.

“Once we are aware of the fundamental principles of perception,” Lotto writes, “we can use the fact that we don’t see reality to our advantage . . . Not seeing reality is essential to our ability to adapt.”

How exactly? The author uses an array of real-life cases to argue that not only are these ideas academic, but they have profound implications for living better. He recounts the story of the Californian boy Ben Usherwood, blinded at the age of three, who developed a three-dimensional “visual” space by clicking his tongue – and so learned to play basketball and cycle around his neighbourhood. Usherwood prodded his brain to develop echolocation, the method bats use to navigate the world by interpreting echoes.

The paradox is that his solution became possible precisely because our eyes are not reliable windows on our world. If sight gave human beings a more accurate version of what is around us, Usherwood would have had no strategy to see in another way. “Revolutionary questions and the revolutions they start,” Lotto writes, “come from demolishing old assumptions to institute new, wiser ones.”

Deviation takes courage, however. The downside of the evolutionary mechanisms for survival is that they also forced us to avoid doubt. Lotto argues that the desire for certainty saves us – but also sabotages us. A tragic instance of this is many women who are struggling to escape from domestic violence. He cites a multimedia project by the photographer Donna Ferrato that chronicles the long journey made by some women to choosing “the uncertainty of leaving over the certainty of continued violence”.

But the very parts of the brain that sabotage us can also set us free. Because we are in a continuous process of generating assumptions about the world, we can choose to escape those neural patterns that block paths to fulfilment.

This realisation has profound implications for every aspect of life: work, love, political engagement and beyond. Acknowledging that we can’t grasp reality frees each of us to use our unique “space of possibility”, which Lotto defines as “the patterns of neural activity that are possible”. This kind of recognition can breed compassion and tolerance (because no one else can perceive the world as you do) and make us better partners.

Trump’s hubris, Islamic fundamentalism and Labour’s new hard-left dogmatism (as obviously disparate as these may be) can all be seen as manifestations of a belief in privileged access to a single truth and reality. Yet neuroscience teaches us that there is no such thing. The humility to recognise that we live in a perpetual state of uncertainty – that this is our fate as human beings – will allow us to be more loving, and more creative.

Evolution made us seek the comfort of certainty but also, paradoxically, seek freedom from certainty, to stay alive in the vortex of change. “Survival (and flourishing) requires innovation,” Lotto says. “We evolved to continually redefine normality.”

So go ahead. Be a deviant. It may just help you live wisely in a world gone mad. 

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

Photo: Getty
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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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