52 in 52 Book Summaries

Book Summary: Iconoclast by Gregory Berns | Forces of Habit

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

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The Essence

An Iconoclast is an innovator. Someone who achieves what the majority saw as unfeasible. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns has isolated the three mental barriers that separate most people from being an iconoclast—perception, fear response, and social intelligence. Iconoclasts have used these neuro advantages to escape conventional thinking, reaching never before seen heights of creativity and nonconformity. But recent findings in neuroscience have allowed us to notice a rate of neural plasticity far greater than ever assumed. Because of this, Bern believes we can train our minds to mirror the iconoclastic. The mindset that sets the few apart is available to all of us, the question is now who is willing to equip themselves with the tools that have best served the radical thinkers of our species.

Iconoclast Summary Journal Entry:

This is my book summary of Iconoclast by Gregory Berns. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. The Journal write up also includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • “Iconoclast | Noun | \ ī-ˈkä-nə-ˌklast \ A person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc. As being based on error or superstition.”
  • Some examples of Iconoclasts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Richard Feynman, and Martian Luther King Jr.
  • “We take for granted that our perceptions of the world are real, but they are really specters of our imagination, nothing more than biological and electrical rumblings that we believe to be real.
  • The iconoclast’s brain sees things differently than other people’s brains. The literal reality that an Iconoclast perceives daily differs so much that it may yield riskier decision making.
  • The iconoclastic brain differs in three main functions.
    1. Perception: seeing differently than others
    2. Fear Response: the ability to tame stress responses
    3. Social Intelligence: connecting with others
  • When we use our imagination we are simulating reality. It is a tool that attempts to see the world differently than the categories we are currently using to perceive it. But for our imagination to be most effective we need novel experiences. Without them, the brain crystalizes the categories it has available thereby limiting its ability to simulate novel thought via imagination.
  • When we create we are also destroying. Creativity can be thought of as an unorthodox combination of what already exists. So when we create, we are essentially destroying what stood before, and rebuilding with the pieces.
  • Test with the intention to fail, because with failure we come closer to the truth—this is the beauty of trial and error.
  • Predictive coding: The brain makes predictions about what it is sensing and alters these predictions when it realizes it has made an error. This realization may not be conscious, nor does the error have to fit into our subjective preferences for how we ought to live.
  • All fear steam from only 3 things:
    1. The unknown; Ambiguity Aversion
    2. Failure
    3. Looking stupid
  • “Do not be paralyzed by risk.” Our species is founded on risk. We either take risks or falter as a species. By becoming too risk aversive, you are taking part in the destruction of manmade breakthroughs.
  • Everett Rogers 5 Attributions to Innovation:
    1. Advantage over other ideas.
    2. Compatible with current values and norms.
    3. Complexity is inversely related to adoption rates—more complex, less adoption.
    4. Triable with little cost to the potential users.
    5. Visible results; users can judge the idea without even trying it.
  • "Attention Changes Perception"
  • Cognitive Reappraisal: Reinterpreting information provided through affect or thought in such a way that its effect becomes diminished. This is our strongest weapon in the war against our passions. Fear, in a way, is only our biological dispositions to react in a specific way. So by reinterpreting the signals, we can remove the power of fear. This does not mean we ought to remove all fear—fear is good, it saves our lives in moments when conscious awareness is not quick enough to act.
  • “An absence of fear of the future and of veneration for the past. One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again. There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.” - Henry Ford
  • Fear can be compared to alcohol: while under its influence, your ability to make decisions is impaired. You don’t make long-term decisions drunk, so don’t do it under duress either.
  • The brain is lazy: time is energy. The brain does not like to work hard, which is why it is constantly rewiring itself to create stronger connections for what works and weaker for what doesn’t. Once comfortably set in its ways, remodeling takes some effort.
  • Novelty v. Familiarity: this plays on the lazy brain idea. When we are young we're constantly seeking out new ideas, experiences, and so on. But with age, people are said to become ‘set in their ways’ why is that? It’s in part due to how the brain sifts through information during our lives. During youth, the brain is seeking out models that work to strengthen synaptic connections, while as we age, the brain has winded down enough of the noise to settle into a pattern of connections that have worked the longest—the lazy brain in action. Meaning that any incoming novel stimuli during old age make the brain work hard to understand. So rather than approach, experience makes us aversive to creating new channels.
  • Taking the perspective of the brain, it isn’t what is more familiar is more pleasurable or rewarding; it’s just that the unfamiliar things tend to be those that are alarming or dangerous.
  • The fear response system in the brain is called the Amygdala. As we become more familiar with something, it inhibits a response that may normally cause the amygdala to stimulate bodily arousal and conscious reasoning.
  • Repetition Suppression: As we are exposed to specific stimuli over time, our brains learn to respond with less robustness—this is how habit forms. When we intentionally do something every day, whatever excitations that may have been preventing us from engaging in the behavior prior disappear over time.
  • Beware of herd behavior. As social animals, we tend to see things how others have seen them on the basis that others have seen them—social proof.
  • A group’s opinion has the ability to alter our perceptions before we are able to become aware that we have been influenced. It is important that we intentionally aim to think differently than the consensus option—especially when we agree with the majority opinion.
  • The commonplace fits directly into the perceptual model the brain loves; a lazy one. It takes little energy to process perception when its categories are well entrenched into a culture. Taking the perspective of the brain, ideological alignment is the most efficient way to perceive the world because it takes the least amount of energy to discern the categories of the model due to all the incoming data from those around you most frequently—its like planning to build a house but the shingles are already installed. 

Reading Recommendations

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what discussed in Iconoclast.

1. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

2. How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

3. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

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