March 17, 2011


This book by Gregory Berns is subtitled "a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently." Berns defines an iconoclast as a person who does something that others say can't be done. He illustrates his points with stories of iconoclasts ((95% of them men) like Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Picasso, Bill Gates, Florence Nighingale and Richard Branson. Do women just tend not to be iconoclasts? He never addresses the question.

His basic thesis is that what prevents people from thinking like iconoclasts is threefold: 1) perception - the brain is economical and so most likes to see and intepret things in their usual categories 2) fear - of failure, of mockery, most of all (according to one analyst) of not having enough money, and 3) lack of social intelligence. So a true iconoclast is willing/able to look at things differently, is not afraid to fail (or has more risk-taking genes) and has the social intelligence to convince others of his or her ideas. Berns points out that someone like Van Gogh was definitely an iconoclast, but a failed one because he lacked the social intelligence to spread his ideas. He died penniless and alone, in spite of the amazing body of original work that has gained him untold posthumous fame.

The book is a slog - it reads in places like a post-post doctoral neuroscientist's thesis (which it probably is) and at other times it just rambles. It reminded me of the Jane Jacobs book I reviewed a while back - two enormously intelligent, passionate and knowledgeable people that don't always "land the plane" - they go sailing off in this direction and that but don't always prove their points very satisfactorily. Probably both iconoclasts.

Berns doesn't really teach much about how to make your brain think differently. His key piece of advice for perception is to get yourself into new situations and see new things to jog your brain out of its accustomed patterns. The parts on how the brain processes fear fit in with a whole bunch of other things I'm looking at in my life right now, so in the end it was a worthwhile read.

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