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Before I get started: I'm really excited to be here to just actually watch what's going to happen, from here. So with that said, we're going to start with: What is one of our greatest needs, one of our greatest needs for our brain? And instead of telling you, I want to show you. In fact, I want you to feel it. There's a lot I want you to feel in the next 14 minutes. So, if we could all stand up.
We're all going to conduct a piece of Strauss together. Alright? And you all know it. Alright. Are you ready? Audience: Yeah! Beau Lotto: Alright. Ready, one, two, three! It's just the end. (Music: Richard Strauss "Also Sprach Zarathustra") Right? You know where it's going. (Music)
Oh, it's coming! (Music stops abruptly) Oh! (Laughter) Right? Collective coitus interruptus. OK, you can all sit down. (Laughter) We have a fundamental need for closure. (Laughter) We love closure. (Applause) I was told the story that Mozart, just before he'd go to bed,
he'd go to the piano and go, "da-da-da-da-da." His father, who was already in bed, would think, "Argh." He'd have to get up and hit the final note to the chord before he could go back to sleep. (Laughter) So the need for closure leads us to thinking about: What is our greatest fear? Think -- what is our greatest fear growing up, even now? And it's the fear of the dark.
We hate uncertainty. We hate to not know. We hate it. Think about horror films. Horror films are always shot in the dark, in the forest, at night, in the depths of the sea, the blackness of space. And the reason is because dying was easy during evolution. If you weren't sure that was a predator, it was too late. Your brain evolved to predict.
And if you couldn't predict, you died. And the way your brain predicts is by encoding the bias and assumptions that were useful in the past. But those assumptions just don't stay inside your brain. You project them out into the world. There is no bird there. You're projecting the meaning onto the screen. Everything I'm saying to you right now is literally meaningless. (Laughter)
You're creating the meaning and projecting it onto me. And what's true for objects is true for other people. While you can measure their "what" and their "when," you can never measure their "why." So we color other people. We project a meaning onto them based on our biases and our experience. Which is why the best of design is almost always about decreasing uncertainty. So when we step into uncertainty, our bodies respond physiologically and mentally.
Your immune system will start deteriorating. Your brain cells wither and even die. Your creativity and intelligence decrease. We often go from fear to anger, almost too often. Why? Because fear is a state of certainty. You become morally judgmental. You become an extreme version of yourself. If you're a conservative, you become more conservative. If you're a liberal, you become more liberal.
Because you go to a place of familiarity. The problem is that the world changes. And we have to adapt or die. And if you want to shift from A to B, the first step is not B. The first step is to go from A to not A -- to let go of your bias and assumptions; to step into the very place that our brain evolved to avoid; to step into the place of the unknown.
But it's so essential that we go to this place that our brain gave us a solution. Evolution gave us a solution. And it's possibly one of the most profound perceptual experiences. And it's the experience of awe. (Music) (Applause)
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(Applause) (Cheers) (Applause) Beau Lotto: Ah, how wonderful, right? So right now, you're probably all feeling, at some level or another, awe.
Right? So what's happening inside your brain right now? And for thousands of years, we've been thinking and writing and experiencing awe, and we know so little about it. And so to try to understand what is it and what does it do, my Lab of Misfits had just the wonderful opportunity and the pleasure
to work with who are some of the greatest creators of awe that we know: the writers, the creators, the directors, the accountants, the people who are Cirque Du Soleil. And so we went to Las Vegas, and we recorded the brain activity of people while they're watching the performance, over 10 performances of "O," which is iconic Cirque performance.
And we also measured the behavior before the performance, as well as a different group after the performance. And so we had over 200 people involved. So what is awe? What is happening inside your brain right now? It's a brain state. OK? The front part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your executive function, your attentional control, is now being downregulated.
The part of your brain called the DMN, default mode network, which is the interaction between multiple areas in your brain, which is active during, sort of, ideation, creative thinking in terms of divergent thinking and daydreaming, is now being upregulated. And right about now, the activity in your prefrontal cortex is changing. It's becoming asymmetrical in its activity,
biased towards the right, which is highly correlated when people step forward into the world, as opposed to step back. In fact, the activity across the brains of all these people was so correlated that we're able to train an artificial neural network to predict whether or not people are experiencing awe to an accuracy of 75 percent on average, with a maximum of 83 percent. So what does this brain state do?
Well, others have demonstrated, for instance, Professors Haidt and Keltner, have told us that people feel small but connected to the world. And their prosocial behavior increases, because they feel an increased affinity towards others. And we've also shown in this study that people have less need for cognitive control. They're more comfortable with uncertainty without having closure.
And their appetite for risk also increases. They actually seek risk, and they are better able at taking it. And something that was really quite profound is that when we asked people, "Are you someone who has a propensity to experience awe?" They were more likely to give a positive response after the performance than they were [before]. They literally redefined themselves and their history. So, awe is possibly the perception that is bigger than us.
And in the words of Joseph Campbell, "Awe is what enables us to move forward." Or in the words of a dear friend, probably one of our greatest photographers, still living photographers, Duane Michaels, he said to me just the other day that maybe it gives us the curiosity to overcome our cowardice. So who cares? Why should we care? Well, consider conflict, which seems to be so omnipresent in our society at the moment.
If you and I are in conflict, it's as if we're at the opposite ends of the same line. And my aim is to prove that you're wrong and to shift you towards me. The problem is, you are doing exactly the same. You're trying to prove that I'm wrong and shift me towards you. Notice that conflict is the setup to win but not learn. Your brain only learns if we move. Life is movement. So, what if we could use awe, not to get rid of conflict --
conflict is essential, conflict is how your brain expands, it's how your brain learns -- but rather, to enter conflict in a different way? And what if awe could enable us to enter it in at least two different ways? One, to give us the humility and courage to not know. Right? To enter conflict with a question instead of an answer. What would happen then? To enter the conflict with uncertainty instead of certainty.
And the second is, in entering conflict that way, to seek to understand, rather than convince. Because everyone makes sense to themselves, right? And to understand another person, is to understand the biases and assumptions that give rise to their behavior. And we've actually initiated a pilot study to look to see whether we could use art-induced awe to facilitate toleration.
And the results are actually incredibly positive. We can mitigate against anger and hate through the experience of awe generated by art. So where can we find awe, given how important it is? So, what if ... A suggestion: that awe is not just to be found in the grandeur. Awe is essential.
Often, it's scale -- the mountains, the sunscape. But what if we could actually rescale ourselves and find the impossible in the simple? And if this is true, and our data are right, then endeavors like science, adventure, art, ideas, love, a TED conference, performance,
are not only inspired by awe, but could actually be our ladders into uncertainty to help us expand. Thank you very much. (Applause) Please, come up. (Applause) (Cheers) (Applause)
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