Man in a suit: Dr Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist from California, gathers data on how human perception works—from gender, race and power to dressing for a party
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
For Dr Beau Lotto, life is one big, glorious experiment. Take this shoot, for example. For some it might be a chore; for Lotto, it’s data. "The experience has been wonderful. It will make me look at images in magazines differently, give me a deepened sense of what is involved."
This is the nub of his work. Lotto is a reader in neuroscience at University College London, and his grand aim, at the age of 44, is to work out how we make sense of the world—and of ourselves. "I start from the premise that we have no direct access to the world around us other than through our senses. The problem is that the information our senses get is meaningless; the brain has to create meaning from the things we see, and this is grounded in our history. When we open our eyes, we’re only seeing a memory, in a sense."
It’s a word he uses a lot: sense. But he doesn’t just want to study how we see, hear, taste and think in an academic sense (see, there it goes again), but, through that, "to create the possibility for people to see themselves differently. Once you are aware that a person’s perceptions are shaped by their experiences, you can start to interact at different levels."
If that sounds a little nebulous, then Lotto’s methods are anything but. He conducts his science in public, with real people. Until recently, he had a live lab at the Science Museum in London, full of things for members of the public to see, hear and fiddle with, while their responses were monitored and fed back into his research. Now he plans to set up a travelling pop-up lab, where the props will be more titillating—cabaret, burlesque and cocktails.
"This is science as nightclub, theatre, but we will be getting real data from people’s experiences. It’s psychophysics—the measurement of perception. There will be experiments on attractiveness, how male and female perceptions of it differ, on racial perceptions, on the effects of power. I want people to walk out feeling differently about themselves and about other people." If all goes to plan, the first nightclub-lab will open for business in Lotto’s native California in 2013.
It’s not just people that fascinate him; his research encompasses bees and apian behaviour. "I treat people like bees, and bees like people," he explains. In 2010, he combined forces with the pupils of Blackawton Primary School in Devon to devise a series of experiments aimed at divining whether bumblebees could learn to recognise colour. The results—which showed that yes, they could—appeared in a Royal Society journal, making its authors the youngest published scientists in the world and, no doubt, tickling the senses of their mentor.
"I never usually wear suits," Lotto says, "but I had four older sisters and I like dressing up." (He shows us a picture of the two patterned-felt frock coats he’s just had made.) Predictably, perhaps, rather than focusing on the look of Mr Start’s navy alternative to traditional black tie, he was more interested in how it made him feel. "I loved the ritual of this. It made me feel more formal, empowered, sharper—though a little restricted. And yes, the bee cufflinks…can I keep them?"
Navy textured wool shawl-collar tuxedo suit, £795, by Mr Start; piqué-collar cotton dress shirt, £135, by Sandro at Mr Porter; honeycomb silk tie, £115, by Marwood; black suede and patent-leather lace-up shoes, £399, by Mr Hare; bee cufflinks (under sleeve), £75, by Simon Carter
STOCKISTS marwoodlondon.co.uk mrporter.com mr-start.com mrhare.com simoncarter.net
Samantha Weinberg is our assistant editor. She is a former commissioning editor on Eureka and the author of "A Fish Caught in Time".
Photographer Sam Barber
Stylist Nicki Black