281 of 306 people found the following review helpful
A brilliant analysis of "the exceedingly rare individual",
This review is from: Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Hardcover)
If I recall correctly, it was in a world history class in an elementary school in Chicago when I first became aware of the word "iconoclast" while reading about an Athenian political and military leader, Alcibiades (5th century BC), whose enemies charged him with sacrilege after seamen under his command became drunk while ashore and roamed the streets, smashing statues of various deities and dignitaries. Curious, I recently checked the Online Etymological Dictionary and learned that an iconoclast is a "breaker or destroyer of images" from the Late Greek word eikonoklastes. Centuries later, an iconoclast was viewed as "one who attacks orthodox beliefs or institutions." This brief background helps to introduce Gregory Berns's book in which he examines a number of people who in recent years accomplished what others claimed could not be done. When doing so, these modern iconoclasts attacked orthodox beliefs and, in some cases, institutions. "The overarching theme of this book is that iconoclasts are able to do things that others say can't be done, because iconoclasts perceive things differently than other people." Berns goes on to explain that the difference in perception "plays out in the initial stages of an idea. It plays out in how their manage their fears, and it manifests in how they pitch their ideas to the masses of noniconoclasts. It is an exceedingly rare individual who possesses all three of these traits."
I was already somewhat familiar with several of the exemplars discussed in this book but not with others. They include Solomon Asch, Warren Buffett, Nolan Bushnell, Dale Chihuly, Ray Croc, Walt Disney, David Dreman, Richard Feynman, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Lauterbur, Jim Lavoi, Stanley Milgram, Florence Nightingale, Branch Rickey, Burt Rutan, and Jonas Salk. According to Berns, these iconoclasts possess a brain that differs from other people's in three functions (i.e. perception, fear response, and social intelligence) and the circuits that implement them. Keep in mind, however, as noted earlier: "It is an exceedingly rare individual who possesses all three of these traits." Howard Armstrong, for example, was "the most iconoclastic and influential engineer of radio" whose inventions include FM. "But what is most interesting about Armstrong is the extent of his iconoclasm," so extreme that it "advanced radio technology but cost him his life." Berns's discussion of Armstrong (Pages 1-4, 9-10, 129, 131, and 151) explains why his story "is a cautionary tale" to those about to challenge conventional wisdom.
Berns makes an important distinction. "The iconoclast doesn't literally see things differently than other people. More precisely, he [begin italics] perceives [end italics] things differently. There are several different routes to forcing the brain out of its lazy mode of perception, but the theme linking these methods depends on the element of surprise. The brain must be provided with something that it has never processed before to force it out of predictable perceptions. When Chihuly lost an eye, his brain was forced to reinterpret visual stimuli in a new way." In this context, I am reminded that only after Sophocles' Oedipus gouged out his eyes and Shakespeare's Earl of Gloucester wandered sightless on the moors did these two tragic figures perceive the realities that, previously, their vision had denied or did not see.
No brief commentary such as this can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of this brilliant book but I can at least suggest a few of the subjects that were of greatest interest to me:
1. How the brain receives, processes, and assimilates what is perceived
2. Given that, how and why people then manage their fears and people pitch their ideas to the masses differently
3. The relationship between imagination and the visual system
4. Why the brain can sometimes be "too efficient"
5. How the networks that govern perception and imagination can be reprogrammed
6. How fear can distort perception
7. Why an iconoclast's familiarity and reputation figure prominently in her or his success
8. The five attributes of innovation and their relevance to the iconoclast
9. How and why a few iconoclasts become icons
10. Why any/all of the three functions of the brain can "go awry" and how to correct the dysfunctionality
As I read the final chapter, "When Iconoclast Becomes Icon," I was reminded of Henry Chesbrough's insights concerning the open business model and his emphasis on the importance of developing an open mindset, one that is receptive to a variety of different points of view, and of Roger Martin's discussion of what he calls the "opposable" mind that is capable of considering contradictory ideas while making especially difficult decisions. I was also reminded of what Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis suggest in Judgment when asserting that effective CEOs "not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops." What Berns offers in this volume is a brilliant explanation of the neurological foundation for precisely what Chesbrough and Martin as well as Tichy and Bennis believe are common characteristics of a great leader. "For the iconoclast to become an icon," Kerns observes, "not only must he possess an especially plastic brain that can see things differently, but he must rewire the brains of a vast number of other people who are not iconoclasts."
This is not an "easy read." On the contrary, before beginning to compose my review, I re-read the book with special attention to the dozens of passages I had highlighted. To his great credit, and to the extent possible, Berns presents scientific material in layman's terms for those such as I who have little (if any) prior knowledge about neuroscience and especially about what the brain is, what it does, why people can perceive the same objects so differently, how and why people can respond so differently to fear, and why there are such significant differences between and among people in terms of their social skills. Because iconoclasts perceive the world differently, they have a different context in which to formulate their mindsets and world views, determine preferences, select objectives, and mobilize resources (including collaborators) when pursuing those objectives. Unlike Alcibiades'seamen who seem to be nothing more than drunken vandals, the contemporary iconoclasts of greatest interest to Berns are those who are visionaries, builders, and in some instances revolutionaries. His frequent use of the word "epiphany" is apt. Several of those whom he discusses experienced a "shock of recognition" that revealed both a profound insight and a compelling vision. Disney's epiphany occurred when images of a static cartoon projected on a movie screen changed his "categorization of drawing from one of static cartoons to that of moving ones - drawings that told stories in a narrative sense."
Presumably there will be many differences between and among those who read this book in terms of what they learn and how they then apply what they learn. Perhaps at least some of them are "regular" iconoclasts and a "precious few" among them are or will one day become icons such as Jonas Salk and Steve Jobs. As for the rest of us, none may ever "shatter conventional thinking" but, thanks to Gregory Burns, we will at least be much better prepared to understand, appreciate and support those who do.
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Showing 1-10 of 18 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 30, 2008 6:54:58 AM PDT
M. Charles says:
It was not Lear, but the Earl of Gloucester, his eyes cruelly plucked out, who wandered sightless in the storm. "I stumbled when I saw."
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 30, 2008 12:53:36 PM PDT
You are quite correct and I thank you for pointing out this error. I shall immediately correct it.
Posted on Sep 30, 2008 10:56:06 PM PDT
Egan Oconnor says:
This was a VERY informative review, and I thank you for taking the trouble to write it so well. You obviously thought a lot about the topic. I do too, and like you, feel humble about my own abilities. At age 71, it is too late for all these new insights to be as much value to me as to children. I feel we all have a duty to help get such insights known to Teach for America teachers (see www.teachforamerica.org), along with the computer programs developed by Michael Merzenich, PhD of brain plasticity pioneering, which can help children with specific neurological blocks to learning overcome them. We owe it to our posterity to APPLY these insights as fast as possible!
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 1, 2008 5:25:25 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 1, 2008 5:26:19 AM PDT
I share your high regard for Wendy Kopp and Teach for America. Have you read her One Day, All Children...: The Unlikely Triumph Of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way and/or Molly Ness's Lessons to Learn: Voices from the Front Lines of Teach for America? Amazon sells both and they are excellent. As the father of four and the grandfather of ten, I realize that my own opportunities as well as remaining years are rapidly decreasing in number and thus have "high hopes" and "great expectations" for the insights to be generated and the breakthroughs to be achieved by those in their generations.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 18, 2008 12:33:05 AM PST
I only want to add Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions to anyone's library if she is not already familiar with it. The mainstream usage of "paradigm" i believe comes from this great book. It is a beautifully constructed argument, from 1962!! and i guess many are not aware how much of it is now part of our common understanding not only of science, and revolutions, but of "iconoclasts", not a term he used. He discussed the "perception of anomalies" and how rare was this capability under the dominance of the paradigm of a particular field, esp. science.
So i would say almost 50 years ago we had Kuhn as an iconoclast himself, and would have learned of what Berns discusses, wayyy bwfore the neuroscience of it.
and of the controversy engendered with karl Popper.
And actually back then when i was introduced to Kuhn, i tracked back to Herbert Butterfield's 1948 lectures at cambridge collected as "The ori9gins of modern science" and the phrase he uses to refer to such as galileo or einstein, as being able to pick up the bundle of sticks from the other end.
so i thought you all might be interested, judging by thiis fine review and the discussion. by way of 'thank you'.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 18, 2008 2:55:23 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 15, 2009 9:55:41 AM PST
Thank you, Salvador, for an excellent suggestion. I share your high regard for Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. You remind me of two other sources also worthy of consideration: Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1987) and Howard Gardiner's Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity As Seen Through the Lives Of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (1994). Both are available in a paperback edition. I hope others will also share their suggestions.
Posted on Mar 8, 2009 8:15:52 PM PDT
Rick Winrod says:
This has got to be one of the best reviews that I have ever read on Amazon. Thank you so much!
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 9, 2009 2:12:08 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Nov 16, 2009 3:04:52 PM PST]
Posted on Apr 28, 2009 7:58:29 PM PDT
Posted on Jul 24, 2009 12:48:17 PM PDT
Blazin Jane says:
This review is especially insightful and demonstrative of discernment and principled thinking...it is not easy for many to detect underlying truths of simplicity when often in life, they are found like a needle in a haystack, which, is usually unavoidable--referring to 'the haystack'...like a car, some just want to know how to drive it, others want to be able to fix it,...and thankfully some want to know enough to build it. But, a driver who understands nothing about how it's built ends up manipulated not only by others, but most importantly, by his own choice to be ignorant concerning any and all things relating to his own boundary protection. The ignorant person typically resorts to *fear as his or her motivation for choices (which usually are 'co-dependent' ones perpetuating a 'sick support system', as I call it), and the educated one usually resorts to *faith as his or her motivation for choices (which are 'interdependent ones' perpetuating a 'healthy support system'..in other words, these are 'nurturers of seeds in the labs of life who bring what they nurture all the way to fruition--growing the fruit themselves, as opposed to the fearful non-nurturer, who obtains fruit that others have nurture through means of theft and lack of earning). It is interesting to note how many basic and simple principles come to light in this in this subject, especially 'humility'...a willingness and 'teach-ability' that is the access door to solutions and connectedness to all things productive. Basically, the books refers to fear (doubt and pride complicated) as being counterproductive,, and faith (access to fruition) as productive. Fear always creates abuse of power and is motivated by the counterfeit of faith: mere confidence alone, used for ill and typically accompanied by threats..an example or two: the Mafia, the pimp/prostitute combination, bullying, blackmail, harassment, negative campaigning, sexual abuse, theft, uncalled-for violence, wing-clipping of those around us, especially our closest relations and spouses, mind-control, terrorizing, creating restlessness and lack of trust, abusing trust, abusing privacy, using half-truths, direct lies, or evasiveness to thieve not only things, but power, advantage, and false image,..abusing both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law to manipulate....these are the things that emerge where there's lack of faith in mankind as the 'customer', 'consumer', or even simply community member. Faith on the other hand, always creates proper use of power and inspires other to be a part of good things without abusing agency, their own nor others'. But those of faith *still must guard there boundaries of safety against 'fear-mongers', as they are always ready to spring; it is the *honest man who 'provides' something to thieve. Defence of boundaries keeps economy and community protected, and in protecting business, assets, and consumers, the biggest temptation is to stoop to the level of the fear-mongers as a counterproductive counter-approach. This is where, if integrity is kept, consumers are sharp to see, and will support the better team, keeping means of self-reliance rolling into bank accounts without the burden of undue stress for guilt that would've come through abuse of power.