To ensure your survival, your brain evolved to avoid one thing: uncertainty. As neuroscientist Beau Lotto points out, if your ancestors wondered for too long whether that noise was a predator or not, you wouldn’t be here right now. Our brains are geared to make fast assumptions, and questioning them in many cases quite literally equates to death. No wonder we’re so hardwired for confirmation bias. No wonder we’d rather stick to the status quo than risk the uncertainty of a better political model, a fairer financial system, or a healthier relationship pattern. But here’s the catch: as our brains evolved toward certainty, we simultaneously evolved away from creativity—that’s no coincidence; creativity starts with a question, with uncertainty, not with a cut and dried answer. To be creative, we have to unlearn millions of years of evolution. Creativity asks us to do that which is hardest: to question our assumptions, to doubt what we believe to be true. That is the only way to see differently. And if you think creativity is a chaotic and wild force, think again, says Beau Lotto. It just looks that way from the outside. The brain cannot make great leaps, it can only move linearly through mental possibilities. When a creative person forges a connection between two things that are, to your mind, so far apart, that’s a case of high-level logic. They have moved through steps that are invisible to you, perhaps because they are more open-minded and well-practiced in questioning their assumptions. Creativity, it seems, is another (highly sophisticated) form of logic. Beau Lotto is the author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently.
Beau Lotto: Every behavior that we do, we do to reduce uncertainty. We do it to increase certainty. When you go down below in a boat and your eyes are moving and registering the boat, and your eyes are saying, “Oh, we’re standing still,” but your inner ears are saying, “No, no, we’re moving.” And your brain cannot deal with that conflict so it gets ill.
The stress resulting from uncertainty is tremendous in our society. It increases brain cell death. It decreases plasticity. It makes you a more extreme version of yourself. We do almost everything to avoid uncertainty. And yet the irony is that that’s the only place we can go if we’re ever going to see differently. And that’s why creativity, seeing differently, always begins in the same way: it begins with a question. It begins with not knowing. It begins with a 'why?'. It begins with a 'what if?'.
And I should also say that these assumptions are essential for your survival. Every time you take a step your brain has hundreds of assumptions: that the floor is not going to give way, that your legs aren’t going to give way, that that’s not a hole, it’s a surface. So these assumptions keep us alive. But they can also get in the way, because what was once useful may no longer be useful. So your brain evolved to evolve. It's adapted to adapt. So a deep question is: how is it possible to ever see differently if everything you see is a reflex grounded in your history of assumptions?
Our assumptions—and the process of vision—is both our constraint and our savior at the same time. Because our brain evolved to take what is meaningless and make it meaningful. If you’re not sure that was a predator, it was too late. So your brain evolved to take this meaningless data and make meaning from it, and that’s the process of creating perception. And then we hold on to those assumptions. They create attractor states in your brain, right, and they become very stable. So how could we see differently? It’s by engaging the process of creating perception.
Well the first step in that is to not just admit but embody the fact that everything you do right now is grounded in your assumptions—not sometimes, but all the time. Because if you don’t accept that then you’ll never create the possibility of seeing differently.
So much of 'Deviate', if people walk away with anything, it’s knowing the process of perception and in some sense I want them to know less at the end than they think they know now, because nothing interesting begins with knowing, it begins with not knowing. Because the next step is to then identify your assumptions—because most of everything that we do, we don’t know why we do what we do—and then the final step is to question those assumptions.
But questioning assumptions is incredibly difficult, because to question assumptions, to doubt what you assumed to be true already, especially if that assumption defines who you are, is to do the one thing that our brain evolved to avoid, which is uncertainty.
In fact, uncertainty is such a difficult, dangerous thing, that evolution has created a brain that tries to avoid it altogether, to the extent that we have things like confirmation bias, where we’ll start looking for evidence to confirm what we assume to be true already. That we would rather hold onto assumptions that we know don’t work, because that is safer (we think) than questioning them and stepping into a place that we don’t actually know, even though that other place might be a great deal better than where we are.
This actually exists all the time within politics. It exists within the concept of the negative view of U-turns, where we ridicule politicians for changing their mind because they got new evidence. We want them to hold onto the same path despite the evidence, which actually shifts them much more towards a belief as opposed to anything that’s evidence driven.
So this also leads on to the idea of whether or not the brain ever does big jumps, or does it only ever do small steps? And the answer is, the brain only ever does small steps. I can only get from here to the other side of the room by passing through the space in between. I can’t teleport myself to the other side.
Similarly your brain only ever makes small steps in its ideas. So whenever you’re in a moment it can only actually shift itself to the next most-likely possible. And the next most likely possible is determined by its assumptions. We call it the space of possibility. You can’t do just anything. Some things are just impossible for you in terms of your perception or in terms of your conception of the world. What’s possible is based on your history.
So what that means is, where does that leave us with creativity, which we have this concept that you’re linking two things that are very far apart? But if the brain never does big jumps, what’s really happening?
And the idea is that, for the person being creative, all they’re doing is making a small step to the next most likely possibility based on their assumptions. But when someone on the outside sees them doing that they think, “Wow, how did they put those two things that are far apart together?” And the reason why it seems that way is because for the observer they are far apart, they have a different space of possibility. And in their space of possibility they exist way over here.
So creativity in this sense is only creative from the outside, not from the inside. For the person being creative they’re making a logical next step. The difference is that their space of possibility is different. They have different assumptions, different biases. In fact they might have a more complex space of possibility, because they have more complex biases and assumptions. Maybe they had a more open attitude to when they experienced other cultures, et cetera, and they assimilated more complex assumptions. So they have more directions in which they can move within their space of possibility.
So we interpret that as them being creative by linking things that are far apart. But, in fact, it’s a logical process of making small steps, changing your space of possibility by identifying and then questioning your assumptions.