Whether you agree or disagree with the anger that is currently expressing itself in our cities, an individual and society can only thrive in uncertainty when the brains of that society perceive hope. Here, Dr Beau Lotto discusses the neuroscience behind why we are witnessing the result of the 'ghosts of society' trying to get feedback in order to feel more hopeful.

At the bottom of this blog you can watch live results of an experiment that aims to understand what hope is for the  brain and its relationship to thriving.

Hope is a powerful, powerful perception. To think that there is something beyond you. To think that eventually you will have the possibility to do more than you’re doing now. That your existence matters. That there will be ongoing value in your existence once your body is no longer present. When a brain loses hope, we all lose. 

We lose what is essential. 

Maslow Pyramid suggests that your lowest, most essential need for life is to have your most basic physiological needs met. Of course this is true at the molecular level. That’s just biology: Our cells cannot live without energy and water. But are energy and water the most essential layers upon which all else is built? 

I think not.

There are other ways to starve. 

The cells of your brain and body evolved to need something else too. 

They need a ‘reason’, which is awe inspiring when you think about what that actually means. 

What was the reason you got up this morning? What propels you forward? 

Questions we often forget to ask, much less live by. 

There’s only one answer that is common to all brains, because all of our brains are relative machines. We do, we make, we push, we text message … we move … in the pursuit of one thing: 


Our brains need it. Without feedback, there’s no way to learn … there’s no way to adapt to uncertainty, much less thrive in it. 

Without feedback, you feel like you’re a ghost. 

It’s how your brain ‘knows’ that it exists. Which is why your brain evolved to perceive relationships, not absolutes. So much so that even at the most basic level of perception, without contrast, without difference, your brain cannot even see. 

Look at a point out into the space ‘over there’ where there is no movement. It looks stable doesn’t it. Unmoving. And yet, your eyes are moving, even now. But, you just don’t know it. You’re blind to the movements of your own eyes. These unconscious movements are called mico-saccades

What would happen if you could stop them? This has been done. In fact there’s a way for you to do it to yourself (I’ll share how at my next Instagram Live Q&A each Friday). What happens? You go blind … for a moment. Your eyes are open, and yet you can watch the whole world disappear in front of them. 

You see, as far as your brain is concerned, life IS contrast. Life IS movement. It’s not continuity and stability. If there’s no movement across your retina, no change in space or time, your brain just stops looking. 

So your brain needs feedback. It’s wired for it. It’s wired for cause-and-effect. When your brain directs its hands to push on something, and it feels resistance, it feels that thing pushing back. Or it sees movement as a result of that effort. Your brain now knows “I’m here”. 

So while Maslow is correct. He’s also only superficially correct. Since, we cannot live without a perceived sense of self-existence. And that perception necessarily lives in the ‘space between’ us, and between us and the world. It’s feedback that creates life. And the nature of the feedback determines the nature of that life ... for better or for worse. 

Without it, we literally perish. With plenty of food, water and warmth, when one’s perception of existence is malnourished, it can result in suicide or drug addiction. It results in destructive behaviours that attempt to force others to notice “I’M HERE TOO”, especially for those who society has ignored - and much, much worse than ignore. Without a sense of existence, you become a ‘perceptual ghost’. 

So Descart was wrong. It’s not ‘I think therefore I am’. That’s solitary. That’s non-relational. That’s being in a jar on the shelf of Berkeley’s study. That’s impossible. That’s not how your brain works. 

For your brain it’s different. It’s “I affect therefore I exist”.  

And yet, so many people in our society do not affect. They do not feel alive. They push, they try, but their brain doesn’t get feedback. Or the feedback it gets is destructive. And each time, they feel increasingly transparent. We are experiencing - and have experienced for years - the consequence of an increasing sense of transparency of others. And it might look completely foreign to you, the destruction, the anger. You might feel an inability to empathize. 

And if this is true for you, your brain can empathise. Because your brain doesn’t need to empathise with the conditions that removed the cause-and-effect in their lives that were beyond their control - that created their transparency. 

Instead, your brain can empathise with the resulting feeling of the transparent self. 

And you know what it feels like ... to have no feedback for your actions. To feel you have no consequence. Indeed, to BE of no consequence. To feel like no one cares. To feel like a ghost. It’s common for every human brain to perceive this, because that is how the brain works. And your brain is just like everyone else’s. All of our brains see in relational terms. And when we feel we are a ghost, we all feel the same as other ghosts … though of course for very different reasons: It’s essential not to confuse one’s subject sense of transparency with the objective difference in the causes of that transparency. Some causes are much worse than others. 

So whether you agree or disagree with the anger that is currently expressing itself in our cities around the world. And while you might lack the awareness of the reasons for that anger (since your lived-experience is different), which might cause you to think “I would never behave in such a way”. Is that really true? What would you do to feel that you existed if every one of your previous behaviours diminished you in the would, imprisoned you to being a ghost, as it is for some people and some communities more than others. What would you do to create the possibility for your child to have the hope of existing in the future? That feeling of the ghost is where your brain can find empathy. And with empathy comes the possibility for compassion-in-action, not retribution. 

What, then, is core to all of our existence? Is it food, shelter and water as Maslow suggests? Or is it something else that transcends these? Something that ‘makes sense’ of our physiology. 

When you look back at your life, what is it that you want to see? Is it meaningfulness? Value? Ease? Or something else? Below, you will see LIVE updates of an experiment that the Lab of Misfits is currently running to begin to discover the core perceptual needs that underpins personal, perceptual health. 

What do you want your life to be?

If you'd like to take part in the experiment, click here.

These are all subjective perceptions. And yet they have objective consequences on the cells of your body and your brain. They will not only determine the quality of your life, they will determine how long and well you live, as well as the nature of your relationships. They will also shape our society. When unmet, they can destroy, not just your life … but the lives of those around you. 

So what is it for you?

In the future, when you look back on your ‘deathbed’, which we all will - the one certainty … what do you want to see? Did your words, intentions and actions align? And did they align with the reason why you woke up this morning? Did you make decisions in your life, especially in times of great uncertainty (like now) that enabled you to thrive? 

And more importantly for the health of your brain, did you enable someone else to thrive? 

The greatest gift we can give to another, is the gift of existence by the simple act of listening in the pursuit of understanding. Understanding requires the courage - indeed the strength to say I don’t know. Which is why creating begins with humility.

More perceptual experiments will be coming soon.


Written by: Dr Beau Lotto

Find out more
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...

Related Posts