Iconoclast – A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently by Gregory Berns


Berns, Gregory Iconoclast – A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, Boston, MA Copyright © 2010 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Required reading for the intellectually adventurous. Warning: This book will change you! Here are a few excerpts I adored:

The definition of an iconoclast as a person who does something that others say can’t be done. This definition implies that iconoclasts are different from other people. Indeed, this is true, but more precisely, the, iconoclast’s brain is different.” P. 6

“the brain runs on about 40 watts of power ( a light bulb!).” p. 7.

“perception is a process that is learned through experience, which is both a curse and an opportunity for change. P. 8

“To see things differently than other people, the most effective solution is to bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before. Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experience and forces the brain to make new judgments.” P.8.

The problem with novelty, however, is that, for most people, novelty triggers the fear system of the brain. P.8.

Fear is the second major impediment to thinking like an iconoclast and stops the average person dead in his tracks. P. 8.

the word iconoclast, which means literally “destroyer of icons,” p. 10

“The brain must be provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions.”p.25

“we can say one thing about the iconoclast’s brain, it would be this: it sees differently than other people’s brains.” P.32

Iconoclasm begins with perception. More specifically, it begins with visual perception, and so the first step to thinking like an iconoclast is to see like one. p. 32

“But epiphanies rarely occur in familiar surroundings. The key to seeing like an iconoclast is to look at things that you have never seen before. It seems almost obvious that breakthroughs in perception do not come I from simply staring at an object and thinking harder about it. Break- throughs come from a perceptual system that is confronted with something that it doesn’t know how to interpret. Unfamiliarity forces the rain to discard its usual categories of perception and create new one.” P. 33

“Imagination comes from the visual system. Iconoclasm goes hand in hand with imagination. Before one can muster the strength to tear down conventional thinking, one must first imagine the possibility that conventional thinking is wrong. But even this is not enough. The iconoclast goes further and imagines alternative possibilities. P.37

“but creativity seems to become more difficult for many people as they get older.” P. 37

“we cannot see that which we don’t know to look for. Second, the ability to see these subtle differences depends on experience. And this means that perception can be changed through experience.” P. 42

“In order to think creatively, and imagine possibilities that only iconoclasts do, one must Jreak out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization-or what Mark Twain called “education.” For most people, this does not come naturally. Often the harder one tries to think differently, the more rigid the categories become. There is a better way, a path that jolts the brain out of preconceived notions of what it is seeing: bombard the brain with new experiences. Only then will it be forced out of efficiency mode and reconfigure its neural networks.” P. 54

“It typically takes a novel stimulus – either a new piece of information or getting out of the environment in which an individual has become comfortable-to jolt attentional systems awake and reconfigure both perception and imagination. The more radical and novel the change, the greater the likelihood of new insights being generated. To think like an iconoclast, you need novel experiences.” P. 57-58.

“Categories are death to imagination. So the solution is to seek out environments in which you have no experience.” P. 58

“The critical fears that  inhibit people from sharing their ideas: the fear of being rejected. At its core, this fear has its origin in social pressure, which is one of the most common of human phobias.” Pp.77-78

Individuals who tended toward social reticence felt comfortable pitching half –baked ideas.” P. 78.

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. – Martin Luther King Jr. p.83.

“We know what we see, and we know right from wrong, but with enough social pressure, we cave in to the fear of standing alone. — If we grant that we are all a bit reticent at times to stand up for our personal opinions, this leaves the door open to act as individuals when we choose. It is a noble grasp for free will. But-and this is the kicker-we must be brave enough. This was Asch’s point. Even in a neutral laboratory setting, most people are not that brave.” P. 92

“Groups are, indeed, superior to individuals, but only when they are diverse and individuals act as individuals. Statistically, most people in a group will lie along a spectrum of opinions, but because of the social pressure to belong, these opinions contract to the social norm. The availability of a minority position breaks the stranglehold of conformity, and groups that allow for minority opinions are statistically more likely to make better decisions than groups that require unanimity.” P.103.

It an institutional level, the implications are clear: committees should not be required to arrive at a unanimous decision. Dissension must be encouraged.” Pp.104-104

“The most effective way for a group to make a decision is by aggregating the opinions of independent individuals. Lt also follows that a group with a lot of diversity among its members is more likely to arrive at a good decision than a group that is composed of members who are alike.” P.104.

“The human brain comes to like that with which it is familiar. And it is this sort of familiarity that the successful iconoclast must strive for. Rightly or wrongly, people put their money into things that they are familiar with.” P. 141.

“In a culture of complete and absolute trust, evolution begins to favor creatures that can deceive other members of the species.” P.150.

“Human  adolescence is marked by an intense drive to explore the world. It is marked by a desire to try new things and eschew that which is perceived as old and stodgy. It is also the time when the dopamine system reaches its peak in physiological activity. Time and again the dopamine system pops up as a key player in both innovation and iconoclasm. Understanding the relationship between dopamine and novelty also explains why some people are receptive to new ideas.” P. 191.

“To be efficient, the iconoclast should target the high-dopamine novelty seekers first. These people will provide the bridge to everyone else.” p. 194.

A newborn child, for example, has a brain about one-quarter the size of an adult’s, but this reaches 80 percent by age two. Not all of this growth is in the number of neurons.” P.196.

“In many ways perception may not ever be mature. Perception, in particular, may be the most plastic and adaptable of all cognitive functions.” P. 198.

“The brain is lazy. It changes only when it has to. And the conditions that consistently force the brain to rewire itself are when it confronts something novel. Novelty equals learning, and learning means physical rewiring of the brain.” P. 199.

Berns is a boundary buster…he is on the frontier of breakthroughs in how we think and ways in which we might become more (much more) than we believe we are capable of becoming.


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