Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think DifferentlyGregory Berns Harvard Business School Press (2008)
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 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.”
Berns’s exemplars 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 those of other people in three functions (i.e. perception, fear response, and social intelligence) and the circuits that implement them. Keep in mind, however, “It is an exceedingly rare individual who possesses all three of these traits.” Berns makes an important distinction. “The iconoclast doesn’t literally see things differently than other people.
More precisely, he perceives 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.”
Berns offers is a brilliant explanation of the neurological foundation for 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.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.