"Genius is in-born, may it never be still-born."

"Oysters, irritated by grains of sand, give birth to pearls. Brains, irritated by curiosity, give birth to ideas."

"Brainpower is the bridge to the future; it is what transports you from wishful thinking to willful doing."

"Unless you keep learning & growing, the status quo has no status."

Sunday, May 10, 2009


The above catchy title happens to be the secondary title of the book, 'Iconoclast' by neuroscientist Dr Gregory Berns.

In the first place, I have been attracted by the principal title, which I have always thought to mean "a nerdy guy" or maybe even "a nut case".

Now, I know, after having read it:

An iconoclast is one who breaks conventions or bucks the trends, especially against overwhelming odds, & yet able to remain steadfast in his or her individualistic pursuits.

To be clear, the author has deliberately operationalised the definition of an iconoclast as a person who does something that others say can't be done.

In Singapore, Sim Wong Hoo, founder & chairman of the billion-dollar global technology outfit, Creative Technology, comes quickly to my mind.

Since he was a teenager, he has had this propensity to think differently, & his unwitting brushes with our pen-pushing law-abiding bureaucrats during the early years have been legendary, especially with regard to the 'No-U-Turn' syndrome or NUTS, as reported in his semi-autobiography, 'Chaotic Thoughts From The Old Millennium'.

[If interested, you can visit this link to order it, in the event that you can't find it in the stores.]

Since 'Iconoclast' has been penned by a neuro-scientist, it has taken diligent efforts on my part to read it, as it's quite heavy-going. Luckily for me, I have a deep interest in brain stuff.

That's to say, the book is not tool-specific &/or application-friendly for the reader.

In reality, one has to read it carefully to get to the ideas of implementation in one's own sphere, as the author likes to throw up varied insights here & there within the dense passages, often filled with neurological foundations - actually, from neuro-economics - to support his thesis.

But I must say, it will be worth your while to read it because the brilliant author explores the many constraints on innovative thinking, as well as challenges commonly held assumptions about human nature.

To my great delight, he uses vivid accounts of exemplary innovators, many of whom I am already familiar with - Nolan Bushnell, Walt Disney, Florence Nightingale, Richard Feynman, Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Ray Kroc, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Jonas Salk & Steve Job - & many unknown others from a wide variety of disciplines to reveal the inner workings of the iconoclast's mind.

In a nut shell, what the author is contending is that we can become iconoclasts as long as we understand, pay attention to, & take care of three things in our lives:

- how we see the world (perception), & how we translate our perceptions into actions, as iconoclasts perceive things differently & act on them fearlessly than other people;

- how we deal with our own fears of the unknown, uncertainty, failure & feeling of stupidity in front of peers (fear response);

- how we interact with - especially when selling our unconventional ideas to - other people (social intelligence);

I like to take this opportunity to share with readers my major takeaways from as well as personal reactions of the book:

i) our brains work on a fixed energy budget; hence they always take shortcuts in the interests of efficiency - this means that they often draw on both our past experiences & other people's opinions to make sense of the world; in some ways, we can blame our evolutionary pressures;

ii) how we see the world is learned through experience; everything we sense has multiple interpretations; hence the one that is ultimately chosen is simply our brains' best guesstimate;

iii) the most effective solution is to bombard our brains with things we have never encountered before - to me, this mean we must constantly expose ourselves to new & novel experiences; only then will our brains be forced out of the efficiency mode & reconfigure their neural networks to entertain fresh insights;

iv) the problem with novelty is that for most people, it triggers the fear response in our brains, especially the fear of uncertainty & the fear of public ridicule;

v) almost every decision we make must be considered in the context of how it might affect the other people in our lives - that's where social intelligence comes in handy!

vi) humans do not like asymmetry as a general rule;

As a result, I reckon it is often difficult to break away from ingrained habits, especially in the way we always look at the world;

Many creativity gurus, especially James Adams, had written about this subject of perceptual shifts. His book is 'Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas'.

That's also why, from my experience as a coach, when people are asked to draw an imaginary creature from outer space, they invariably will draw a symmetrical one - with two or four eyes, &/or with two or four legs.

No wonder, even Hollywood producers want to play it safe.

Can you imagine the audience's reaction - which affects box office receipts - to the Alien or Predator running on one leg?

vii) we have a natural blind spot into both of our eyes - interestingly, cats & dogs don't have blindspots - & this phenomenon is unique to humans, resulting in our brains filling in with their best guesses of what should be out there in the world;

To me, this is not so bad when compared to the more deadly kind of bindspots - the acquired ones, which are analogous to our experience-based categorisations.

viii) iconoclasts do differently from other people in the way they categorise & label what they see; that's to say whether one person sees ugliness or beauty in asymmetry is entirely a result of categorisation & labelling;

ix) because of the built-in distributed processing power of our brains, we can reprogram our brains to perceive things differently - wow, good news!

x) the key to seeing like an iconoclast is to look at things that you have never seen before;

Unfamiliarity forces our brains to discard the usual categories & labels of perception & create new ones; that's to say our brains constantly need some sort of fresh kick starts;

No wonder, according to the author, when our brains are repeatedly presented with the same visual stimuli, the neurons in our visual system continue to respond, but with decreasing vigor;

Sad to say, repetition may be the mother of learning, but when it comes to brain efficiency, or visual creativity, it's a stumbling block!;

xi) sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog our perceptual proclivity; a more drastic change of environment - like globe-trotting & hitch hiking - is even more effective;

xii) new acquaintances can also be a source of new perceptions; 'familiarity breeds contempt' & 'variety is the spice of life' now make more sense!

xiii) a change of vantage point may also be sufficient to yield new perceptions;

All these kick starts remind me of the significance of 'mindfulness' as postulated by Dr Ellen Langer of Harvard University & 'insight restructuring' or 'provoking insight' as propounded by Edward de bono;

xiv) we use all of our brains - just not all at the same time; also, our brains always adopt the path of least resistance;

xv) imagination or visual creativity stems from our ability to break categorisation & labelling;

xvi) in order to think creatively, & imagine possibilities that only iconoclasts do, one must break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorisation & labelling - now, we can blame our schooling, especially in Singapore, which favours exam-smart students!

xvii) the frontal cortex, which contains rules for decision making, can reconfigure neural networks in the visual pathways so that we can see things that we didn't see before simply by deploying our attention differently.

So, come to think of it, Edward de bono has been right all along:

- what do you choose to see & where do you direct your attention;

xviii) novel stimulus - people, places, things - is the key to jolt our attentional systems awake & reconfigure both perception & imagination; the more radical & novel the change, the greater the likelihood of new insights being generated;

That's why when you are stuck with a problem in the office, it feels good just to take a walk outside, besides getting some fresh air!

xix) an effective strategy to fight categorisation & labelling is to confront them directly; the author suggest using analogies - a technique already proven effective by the Synectics problem solving methodology since the sixties;

To William Gordon & George Prince: you were right on!

xx) today, the major stressor for most people stems from social reasons.

Social stressors come from conflicts with spouse, bosses, & competition with peers. Add on top of this an increasing perception of lack of control over the environment, & you have a recipe for ongoing stress that takes a toll on the body . . . As the flashpoint for the stress response, the brain is the organ that initiates the cascade;

I am not surprised to learn this, as the HeartMath people have long maintained that stress is often the problem of perception & communication;

Personally, I also feel their Freeze Frame methodology for stress relief is a powerful antidote;

xxi) the author has an interesting proposition to deal with the fear of the unknown:

One is proactive, prevent or limit our brains from making unpleasant associations that they will remember;

The other is reactive, acknowledging the fact that unpleasantness is unavoidable but need not be paralysing . . . Instead of trying to eradicate the fear response, a more reasonable approach is to examine & reappraise the situations that tend to set off the alarm, & use the prefrontal cortex to inhibit or override it;

Remember the pain/pleasure scenario from Anthony Robbins?

xxii) I like the author's suggestion of Baynesian updating - rarely used in daily decision making - which is the statistical process of using new information to updating probability estimates when reappraising ambiguous circumstances or risks. The strategy is to view them as opportunities for knowledge updating - this is just a form of reframing our minds;

xxiii) Paradoxically, physical exercise, which is a short term stressor, is perhaps the best remedy for chronic stress;

xxiv) the 'Law of Large Numbers', though mathematically rock solid, is fascinating; that's the power of the group or 'group think' which often comes into play when an individual is making multiple interpretations of visual stimuli, because an even more potent source of categorisation that affects perception: other people;

xxv) the author suggests one possibility to deal with 'groupthink':

Isolate oneself so that one doesn't have to face others' opinions;

Another solution, in the spirit of Richard Feynman, is to develop a thick skin & simply not care what others think;

There's still a third possibility, from the iconoclast perspective, recruit just one like-minded individual to fight your war!

xxvi) Fear is easily recognisable - I agree, it's just "false evidence appearing real".

One only needs to listen to the body's responses to know that one is scared. But once fear is recognised we must bring online cognitive processes to deconstruct what the fear is. Only when the fear is broken down into its component pieces can it be eliminated. The key is recognising the fear in the first place & not make judgements while under the influence of fear;

I hold the view that fear has also to do with our own belief system as well as as our self esteem or feeling of being capable & lovable;

xxvii) the power of social connectedness as described in the book is also fascinating; so is the concept of mere exposure effect where one increases the familiarity - our brains love familiarity - of one's idea with the intended audience;

Actually, it's just plain public relations; this is then extended through whom-you know & who-knows-whom;

So, the six degrees of separation now makes sense!

xxviii) it is important to remember what Warren Buffet once famously said:

"It takes 20 years to build a reputation & 5 minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."

So positive reputation becomes a premium when building a social network.

This is because, according to the author, our brains are wired under the assumption of reciprocity. Every social interaction is undertaken under the assumption of tit for tat. This biological golden rule means that we must approach every interaction as if the roles will be reversed someday.

xxix) novelty equals learning, & learning means physical rewiring of our brains;

This certainly resonates with the pioneering work of Dr Marian Diamond of UCLA in the late eighties. She has argued relentlessly that a new & stimulating environment enhances the regeneration of our brain cells.

On the whole, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading & assimilating from the book, except for the last part, the 'Appendix: The iconoclast Pharmacopoeia', which I thought it has been somewhat of an intellectual mumbo-jumbo by the author.

All I can make some sense of from here is that, just stay away from stimulants!

Nonetheless, I must also add that this is the first time that a neuro-scientist has masterfully weaved together a wonderful tapestry showing the interconnectedness of our vision, perceptual shifts, power of imagination or visual creativity, fear response, social interaction & networking, & purposeful actions, at least from the neurological standpoint.

The author certainly deserves my kudos!

[Extracted & Adapted from the 'Optimum Performance Technologies' weblog.]

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