What does it mean to have a memorable travel experience? Can we measure behavioral consequences of these memorable experiences? These are just a few of the questions Beau Lotto has about adventure travel.
Understanding why and how people perceive their travel experiences on a neural level can help explain and validate travel’s significance. During the Adventure Travel World Summit, Lotto, the professor and CEO of Lab of Misfits, will deliver the event’s opening address and consider the fundamental role perception plays in travel. He offered a few key insights into a scientific way of looking at a highly experiential industry.
ATTA: Insights from neuroscience have started informing thinking across many different domains from finance to policy design. Why are we seeing this rising interest in applying knowledge about how our perceptions and brain systems work outside of science?
Lotto: From my perspective, there’s an increasing realization that everything you do is grounded in your perception. To understand perception is to not only have a fundamental understanding of how the brain works but it’s to understand what it means to be human. The colors you see, the clothes you wear, the people you fall in love with, the places you go on holiday, and, in fact, even the perception of an adventure itself is grounded in how and why you see what you do.
ATTA: Is there something that brought about this increased interest? Why are we interested in this now?
Lotto: From our perspective, the increased interest is because we hope to create awareness of the fundamental nature of perception. My personal view is there isn’t enough awareness out there in the first place, so I would like to see it increase far more than it has. If people had more awareness of perception and the fundamental principles of how and why they see what they do, that would be the basis by which we would diminish the conflict that exists in the world. You could argue there isn’t enough awareness but that there’s an increased sense, at the very least, that people have cognitive biases. There seems to be this thought that sometimes we have biases, but often we don’t. My argument is that everything we do is grounded in our assumptions and our biases that are encoded in our brain. Becoming aware of that actually creates the possibility of toleration toward difference. I find we’re getting an increased interest when people are interacting with us because they have that desire to expand themselves and become aware, but I don’t see enough desire.
ATTA: You are a pioneer in applying neuroscience to better understand highly experiential industries such as entertainment. What are the types of insights you are able to produce for them?
Lotto: One is the nature of why they do what they do, so looking at the business themselves. Why do they exist? What are they actually in the business of? How does an organization perceive itself? Often they haven’t asked the question, or they give a very restricted, non-adapting answer to that question.
The second is insight into their audience. Who are they? If you’re engaging with people, what is your audience? What do they care about? What is it to be human?
The third is helping the organization become adaptable. Again, grounded in perception because the most successful systems in nature adapt. In fact, the most successful systems are adaptable; it’s not simply that they adapt but the way they adapt.
And the fourth is we create experiences with them — “experiential experiments” — that help them take ownership of something that is essential to human nature. In the case of Cirque du Soleil, for example, we helped them take ownership of the concept of awe and wonder by creating insight into that. It creates a fundamental layer of authenticity. So much of branding is about just a slogan — a statement — as if that gives them some sort of ownership over that slogan. Our argument is that it doesn’t. If you really want to create ownership over that concept, give us insight. Help us to have insight into it. That facilitates loyalty toward your audience.
ATTA: You mentioned the experiential experiment. Can you explain what this is?
Lotto: An experiential experiment is exactly that, in a sense. It’s the juxtaposition of those two words. It’s an experiment that is itself an experience for the audience, so the audience is part of an experience. Imagine taking a science experiment and putting it in an art gallery. They are literally having an immersive experience that is aesthetic, beautiful, and engaging — an experience itself — but the experience is designed as an experiment, so we’re getting information and data from the people.
ATTA: Can you give a couple of examples of notable experiments that you’ve done in your work?
Lotto: We created an experiment at a Cirque du Soleil event in Las Vegas, where we asked the question, “what is awe and who cares?” In thinking about what is awe, we were measuring the brain activity of many people watching a Cirque du Soleil experience — in this case, the show was “O,” one of their classics — and we were measuring the change in the behavior and perception of people before and after the performance.
This wasn’t questionnaire-based, which is slightly informative but they’re not as informative as one would like because people often give answers they’d like to be true and it completely eliminates context. So we were actually measuring changes in behavior — low-level changes, often unconscious changes — and we actually came up with a neural signature of awe in the brain. We have a neural network that can predict whether or not people are experiencing awe to an accuracy of 75%. And we measured that awe has fundamental changes in how you perceive yourself in the world and how you engage with it.
Right now, we’re engaged in another experiment around anger and frustration. We’ve also done an experiment with the Charles Koch Foundation on toleration. What does toleration look like in the brain? How can we facilitate it to people?
ATTA: In adventure travel, destinations and companies seek to offer and facilitate memorable experiences. How can neuroscience help them with that?
Lotto: There are a number of ways. First of all, we can ask what it means to be memorable. What are the mechanisms by which the brain encodes meaning and value in the experience? Can we actually quantify the significance of that experience? Of course you can quantify through self-report, but, again, that can often be misleading. Could we actually have a neural metric for the significance of what’s going on in your brain? Can we measure the behavioral consequence of the memorable experience? Is there any behavioral, perceptual consequence of a memorable experience.
And then, what’s the significance of travel itself? What does it do to you at a deep fundamental and perceptual level? We’re focusing not on concepts but on percepts, not on cognition but on how you actually see and think about the world. How do you actually interact with someone? If we can measure that, it creates insight into how you can create those experiences and how you can maximize impact. It also adds validation to the experience.
It could also be a form of recruitment: “Hey, we’ve proven that this experience does that to your brain. Do you want to have that happen to your brain? Come on this experience.”
But we never use the science — and this is very important — to prove anything. When we’re working with a brand or a client, we always say we are doing science. We are interested in the fundamental insights. We might not discover anything. Whenever we create an experiential experiment, a scientist has to look at it and say, “that’s a great experiment.” An artist or experiential designer has to look at it and say, “that’s a great experience.” And the argument that when we create that, it is not a compromise. It’s actually something else altogether. So that’s really important because this is not neuro-marketing.
ATTA: Based on your previous response, can you share what you would like to learn about adventure travel and what you are curious to explore from a neuroscientific point of view? Is it these questions that intrigue you, or is there something else that piques your interest?
Lotto: It’s these questions. My aim is to better understand adaptability and openness. We want to better understand how you create spaces that enable people to expand. We also want to understand how you integrate across difference and diversity. A lot of people focus on diversity but very few focus on integration. Not assimilation but integration.
We’ve been studying that at the human level but also at the mathmetical level, the computation level, and the physiological level, and the reason is because that will create a wiser culture. My feeling is travel can be fundamental to that process. I personally think we think about travel in a very holistic way. I don’t mean travel just in terms of going to another country. I mean to experience something that’s different from your past experience. There are lots of ways of traveling. To read a book is to travel. You can travel in your mind. You can sit somewhere and imagine. I’m really interested in understanding that concept and then creating spaces enabling people to travel and experience something they haven’t experienced before with the intention of expanding themselves.