Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently

Gregory Bern

252 pages, Harvard Business Press, 2008

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Psst … psst. Want to be an iconoclast— someone who really shakes things up? Do you want to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, or Jonas Salk? Then you must do three things, advises psychiatry professor Gregory Berns in his new book, Iconoclast.

First, see things differently from other people—see what others do not see. Second, conquer your fear of failure, of the unknown, and of ridicule. Third, be socially intelligent: Figure out how to interest people in your ideas and how to sell those ideas to opinion leaders.

If you do these three things, Berns believes, you are well on the road to exciting ideas, discoveries, inventions, or whatever you fancy.

Iconoclast goes on from there to give a sophisticated yet readable introduction to what people who see the world differently are like—in particular, how their brains are wired differently from ours. For one, an iconoclast’s amygdala—which adjoins the brain’s temporal lobe and controls fear responses— functions in ways that will automatically reduce his or her fear response.

And what if you’re not a born iconoclast? Are you doomed to fail if you try to create that innovative nonprofit, program, or whatever else you’ve long imagined? Not necessarily, Berns reassures. And here he recognizes that although our brains may be pre-wired to work in certain ways, we can rewire them, to some extent, to think more iconoclastically.

For one, we can develop strategies to reduce our instinctive fears or tendencies to think in conventional ways, often simply by confronting these fears or this kind of thinking; we might seek out novel experiences and attempt to feel a degree of comfort with them, for instance. We don’t have to let stress get the better of us, either: We can consider it a wake-up call to reappraise where we are in our lives and where we need to be. And because we tend to be less fearful of that which is more familiar, we can get comfortable with ideas others consider strange, and then couch those ideas so that others won’t be afraid to contemplate them.

We might emulate Steve Jobs, for instance. Jobs, realizing that his ideas were technologically beyond most people’s understanding, purposely pitched his ideas to people who were somewhat more technologically sophisticated, and who would likely gain converts through their own enthusiasm. In other words, he carefully targeted his pitches so that his ideas would “go viral.”

Berns also recognizes that iconoclasm is not an all-or-none phenomenon, and that even the most creative people have days “when their thinking is stale and clichéd.” And he quite rightly separates creativity from ordinary intelligence, standing in contrast to those psychologists who cannot see anything in creativity beyond what conventional IQ tests measure—namely, conventional thinking!

That said, the book probably undervalues the role of intelligence, and of analytical thinking in particular. Part of what makes people successful iconoclasts is their skill in separating their good ideas from their bad— the really creative ones from those that are stale or clichéd. Most successful iconoclasts not only have a few great ideas that catch on, but also have many more ideas they discard as not creative or practical. They need the analytical discernment to recognize which of their ideas to push. Analytical intelligence is something we can develop, much the same way we develop muscle tone—by using it and applying it to successively harder problems. We can also learn from our mistakes, and thereby develop discernment in our thinking.

Berns also insufficiently credits several factors important in creative thinking. Perhaps foremost of these is our family and cultural background—whether we come from a background that values creative ideas or suppresses them. We can, of course, react against this kind of background, but people who were brought up to conform rigidly must fight harder to become iconoclasts than do people whose creative ideas have been rewarded. Other vital factors in creative thinking are resilience—or our ability to pick up the pieces after our ideas are rejected by others again and again—and whether or not we take our ideas and ourselves so seriously that we can never move beyond the last idea, considering it the final truth.

A last objection: In describing how creativity happens, Berns overemphasizes the role of sight. “Imagination comes from the visual system,” he states. (The visual system is our sense of sight and the biological apparatus that supports it.) But someone can be blind and creative (Helen Keller). Moreover, someone can use other senses, such as the sense of sound, to express creativity (Mozart). We can even use the sense of smell creatively: Advertisers have discovered this and find creative ways to make products appealing through people’s sensitivity to varying aromas. And some of us are creative in a synthetic way, combining the senses: Creators of operas, ballets, or musicals must combine the visual and the auditory in a highly synthetic yet precise way.

In the end, though, Berns has written both a technically sound and an inspiring book. It not only analyzes the nature of iconoclasm in fascinating detail, but also serves as a guide for people who feel trapped by conventional thinking and want to escape. The keys out of their prisons are in this book. It is up to these readers to use them to escape and open new doors.

Robert J. Sternberg is dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and author of numerous books, including Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized and Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence.

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