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 appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning