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'We're all delusional' – Neuroscientist and TED speaker Beau Lotto on why context is everything and why brands need to take notice

Think you know yourself? Well, think again. Our thoughts, creativity and actions are determined entirely by context – and brands should keep this in mind. The Drum explores the fascinating world of neurodesign, as laid out by Dr Beau Lotto at The Drum Live.

Context is everything. Information is meaningless. Just six words which, if truly understood, have the potential to change the way we think about our humanity – and change the future of advertising. Understanding the way we make sense of the world is central to understanding the process behind creativity, and fundamental to brands and marketers looking to think differently.

Making sense of the world around us, and digesting what it means for us as individuals, is the central theme of the discussion on neurodesign from neuroscientist and TED speaker Dr Beau Lotto at The Drum Live.

Over the course of an hour, Lotto demonstrates that as humans, context is the only thing that matters. It’s what allows our brains to make sense of the information we see in front of us in the world. By using an example of two grey squares alongside each other, whose appearance differs as a result of changing their surrounds, the audience is reminded that all that’s changing is their minds.

“Context is everything. Your brain does not do absolutes. Your brain only does relationships. That’s all it ever does and that’s all it can ever do,” says Lotto.

“There is no inherent value in information, it doesn’t tell you what to do. You have no direct access to the physical world. The only information in the world is the stuff that falls on to our senses.”

And as there is no value in information alone, Lotto highlights, your brain makes sense of the information presented to it using experience of what has happened in the past, which he argues is “all we can rely on”.

“The functional structure of your brain is literally a representation of your history. We only ever see what was useful to see in the past.”

To demonstrate this, Lotto asks the audience to look at a slide depicting two coloured squares and two desert scenes. By focusing hard on the dot between the coloured squares and then diverting your vision to the dot between the two identical desert scenes, they appear different. This is a literal representation of how anything you see after an experience will be a consequence of that experience, while the colour returning to normal highlights that the brain “has evolved to adapt” and grows new cells according to activity and engagement.

Despite the fact that humans are shaped and influenced by our experience and relationships, brands are largely still not understanding this, according to Lotto.

“Humans are contextual – we tend to see ourselves in other people and see ourselves as linear. Our personalities change constantly. We are no different from that grey square inside a larger square. Who we are changes depending on context. And yet brands and marketers treat people as solitary. They even treat them as averages.”

He compares brands’ relationships with audiences to real-life relationships, asking us to “imagine having a relationship with someone and treating them as the average” – highlighting why brands should be making more effort to get to know and understand people.

However, Lotto is quite clear that understanding people can’t be done by simply asking them about their behaviour using a tick-box approach. This doesn’t work; people don’t know why they behave in a particular manner because they can’t recognise their inherent assumptions. Indeed, many forward-thinking brands are already attempting to stay ahead of the curve in terms of understanding our assumed behaviour by tracking behavioural patterns online.

“To know someone is to know how they deviate from the norm. To understand people, to understand behaviour, don’t ask, because we don’t really know why we do something. You have to learn about what people do, not why they say they do it.”

‘Who, what, where, when’ type questions, according to Lotto, are pretty meaningless, and marketers should instead look deeper at people’s actual behaviour rather than simply what they say they do – which is usually what they want to do rather than representing what they actually do. “These aren’t meaningful questions. These are what give you the information, but information is meaningless. What you really want to ask is ‘why’. You have to measure behaviour.”

In Lotto’s view, bringing together design with neuroscience – neurodesign – is the combination of bringing together understanding and transformation.

He says: “If you really want to design something for people, you have to understand what it is to be a person. You have to understand what it is to be human, hence the concept of neurodesign.”

Stepping into uncertainty

The first part of Lotto’s talk focuses on why our behaviour and perception is grounded in our assumptions, based on past experience. Yet when we’re looking to think differently, our response must step away from our assumptions, grounded in our history. Creativity must surely stem from somewhere other than simply our own experience. According to Lotto, the beauty of the human mind lies in the fact that we are “delusional”. This separates us from animals and enables us to construct reality where there is none – in other words, we think differently.

To demonstrate this point, Lotto manages to get audience members to attach meaning to a jumble of sounds that are completely meaningless – highlighting that as humans we attempt to create reality out of something that doesn’t exist; constructing meaning where there is none.

Stepping away from our inherent assumptions and into uncertainty is one such means of cultivating creativity – because the best questions, argues Lotto, are the ones that create the most uncertainty.

“We hate to have our assumptions questioned because it creates uncertainty, which leads to stress. Your brain hates uncertainty. Yet the best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty; the questions that challenge what I assume to be true already – whether that be at a corporate or a personal level.”

So what does all of this mean for creatives?

Those operating at the coalface of advertising are constantly trying to provide experiences that are contextual, engaging, surprising.

The answer instead, according to Lotto, lies in an unexpected class of behaviour – play. He explains that dolphins – the most intelligent animals in the world – are also the ones that play into adulthood. While there is no obvious point to this behaviour, and no obvious outcome, they still engage in it, because play is its own reward. He also describes it as “evolution’s solution to uncertainty”.

“Play is not just childish running around a playground. Play is actually a way of being. It encourages diversity, it is open to possibility. Almost everything else you do in life is in order to get reward, but play is its own reward.”

And crucially, play celebrates uncertainty. Lotto argues that play is essential for creativity and innovation, but despite companies’ “explicit focus on innovation”, it is not valued. It seems both companies and educational establishments are failing to instil creativity by not recognising the value of play, and by focusing too much on answers rather than questions.

Until we do appreciate the value of play, and fully embrace uncertainty, it looks like we’ll never truly understand people, or unlock our true creativity.

This feature was first published in The Drum Live issue. You can watch Lotto's talk at The Drum Live below.

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