Read Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently Online

Authors: Gregory Berns Ph.d.

Tags: #Industrial & Organizational Psychology, #Creative Ability, #Management, #Neuropsychology, #Religion, #Medical, #Behavior - Physiology, #General, #Thinking - Physiology, #Psychophysiology - Methods, #Risk-Taking, #Neuroscience, #Psychology; Industrial, #Fear, #Perception - Physiology, #Iconoclasm, #Business & Economics, #Psychology

Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (9 page)

BOOK: Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently
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The brain is extraordinarily efficient in using its resources. Too efficient. While in familiar surroundings, whether Mullis’s laboratory or Chihuly’s hotshop, the brain perceives things in ways that it has become accustomed to. Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not seen before, does it start to reorganize perception. This reorganization spills over and influences the internal images that can be held in the mind’s eye. So even though Mullis had been thinking about DNA and oligonucleotides for months, something happened in his car that evening that triggered a new perception of the problem that was previously unavailable to him in familiar surroundings.

For the same reason, Disney didn’t imagine the possibilities of animation until he saw the novel juxtaposition of projected illustrations with moving pictures. Only then did his perception of drawing change from a static one to a dynamic one that could tell a narrative. And it took the realities of war to trigger the imagination of Florence Nightingale to change the sanitary conditions that were killing soldiers.

Fortunately, the networks that govern both perception and imagination can be reprogrammed. The frontal cortex, which contains rules for decision making, can reconfigure neural networks in the visual pathways so that an individual can see things that she didn’t see before simply by deploying her attention differently. But it is difficult to do this under business-as-usual conditions. It typically takes a novel stimulus—either
a new piece of information or getting out of the environment in which an individual has become comfortable—to jolt attentional systems awake and reconfigure both perception and imagination. The more radical and novel the change, the greater the likelihood of new insights being generated. To think like an iconoclast, you need novel experiences.

As in the last chapter, the surest way to evoke the imagination is to confront the perceptual system with people, places, and things it hasn’t seen before. Categories are death to imagination. So the solution is to seek out environments in which you have no experience. The environments may have nothing to do with the individual’s area of expertise. It doesn’t matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be crosstalk.

Novel experiences, especially big changes such as relocations, figure prominently in the imagination of an iconoclast. Without losing sight of why novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination (because they force the perceptual system out of categories), the real target is categorization. The tendency of the brain to take shortcuts through categorization means that the iconoclast maintains a state of vigilance over the use of categories.

An effective strategy to fight categorization is to confront categories directly. Whether it is categorizing a person or an idea, write out the categories. Jot down some words that categorize an idea. Use analogies. You will naturally fall back on things that you are familiar with. Allow yourself the freedom to write down gut feelings, such as stupid or hot. Only when you consciously confront your brain’s reliance on categories will you be able to imagine outside of its boundaries.

THREE
 
Fear—The Inhibitor
of Action
 

I have learned over the years that when one’s

mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing

 

what must be done does away with fear.

 

—Rosa Parks

 

I
F BRANCH RICKEY WAS AN
iconoclast for hiring Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson was equally an iconoclast for having the courage to do so. It is hard to overestimate the symbolic importance of Jackie Robinson. Born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, a grandson of a slave, Robinson seemed an unlikely candidate to become an icon. His father left when he was six months old, and Robinson’s mother picked up the family and moved to Southern California. Although he grew up in a somewhat more integrated environment in Pasadena, Robinson still knew the pains of discrimination from an early age. But he didn’t let fear get in the way of what he did.

Sports became a respite for Robinson. He had natural athletic ability. Later winning a scholarship to UCLA, he became the university’s first four-letter man in basketball, baseball, football, and track. But reality soon began to creep in, and Robinson left UCLA after two years, convinced that “no amount of education would help a black man get a job.”
1
After Pearl Harbor, Robinson enlisted in the army, but he had a rough time there. He was outspoken about how blacks were treated, particularly with the seating arrangements on buses. The result was a court-martial. Fortunately, Robinson was acquitted and received an honorable discharge in 1944. But still without any job prospects, he signed up to play black baseball in the Jim Crow leagues.

Robinson knew Branch Rickey’s motives weren’t entirely altruistic. Rickey was chasing a pennant. But it was Robinson who had to face real fear. He had to disprove the prevailing opinion, at least among the team owners, that blacks were incapable of playing in the majors. And for going against this overwhelming opinion, Robinson deserves the label “iconoclast.”

On opening day in 1947, Robinson endured an unending stream of racial epithets emanating from the Philadelphia Phillies’ dugout. Robinson later wrote, “Of all the unpleasant days in my life, [this day] brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been.
2
It was almost enough to make him question his own ability. He entertained images of pummeling the Phillies’ bench.

And then came Robinson’s epiphany. As with every iconoclast, there is a point in time that stands crystallized in their memory as the moment when something changed their perception of the world. For Robinson, his fear subsided when he looked over at Rickey and realized, “Rickey had come to a crossroads and made a lonely decision. I was at a crossroads. I would make mine. I would stay.”
3

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Hotels refused to accommodate Robinson with his teammates. He received bags of hate mail. The lives of his wife and son were threatened. But his persistence paid off. His
teammates rallied around him. Not because he was black, but because Robinson was a key player who helped the Dodgers win the pennant that year. As his athletic prowess became apparent, the fans supported him too. “The black and the young were my cheering squads. But also there were people—neither black nor young—people of all races and faiths and in all parts of this country, people who couldn’t care less about my race.”
4

So how did Robinson do it? How does an individual squelch the fear of the unknown, the fear of physical harm, and the fear of social isolation? The answer lies in how his brain dealt with the second key function of iconoclasm: the fear response.

Fear: The Mother of All Stress

 

Fear feels bad. When you are scared, your body is under stress. Very few human behaviors are as stereotypical as the stress response. The triggers may vary from individual to individual, but the picture of stress is always the same. The blood pressure rises, and the heart starts beating faster. Sweat glands seem to blossom in locations that you didn’t even know existed. The moisture emerges in all the wrong places as the mouth dries up and with it the words coming out. Fingers tremble. The voice warbles and cracks, and the stomach flip-flops. Sometimes the body tries to compensate by lowering blood pressure, with the unfortunate result of feeling lightheaded.

The human stress response, although sometimes rearing its head in the most inopportune times, is part and parcel of our evolutionary history. Only the fittest have survived in what has been many times in the past a hostile environment. The world changes. Animals try to eat you. Others compete with you for food and reproductive rights. Yes, growing up as a species on the planet Earth is a stressful process.

But stress is different today. And while humans do not fend off saber-toothed tigers, we sure have our share of other stressors. The
social fabric of society is far more complex than any culture that humans evolved in. And still, we carry the burden of millions of years of evolution. We possess a stress response system that evolved in very different circumstances than exist today. In fact, the stress system is so important, and so active, that it can override every other system in the brain. The stress system is not rational. It reacts when provoked, and this reaction is powerful enough to derail many of the most innovative people out there.
The ability to tame the stress response represents the second great hurdle to becoming an iconoclast.

Let’s break down the stress response.
5
There are two distinct components: the neural system and the hormonal system. The neural component of stress is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which itself is divided into two subparts. One part of the autonomic nervous system, called the
sympathetic
system, becomes activated during stress, and the other part, called the
parasympathetic
system, is turned off during stress. Both parts of the autonomic nervous system connect the brain to the internal organs of the body. The autonomic nervous system can operate quite well without the brain, and so its connection to the brain is a fairly low-bandwidth connection that keeps the big kahuna apprised of system status. Not that the brain can do much about it. For example, you may become aware that something is amiss in your digestive tract, but if your autonomic nervous system decides that its GI contents must be purged, there’s no way your brain can stop it.

A vast network of internal nerves makes up the autonomic nervous system. These nerves are completely separate from the spinal cord. The sympathetic nervous system is made up of a network, called
ganglia
, that exists in parallel with the spinal cord. These ganglia can be found in the thorax, in the abdomen, and in the pelvis. They look like a vast disorganized spider web, and you can trace the nerves to organs such as the heart, stomach, and bladder. The sympathetic system sends nerves to salivary glands too, and when active, inhibits the production of saliva. It even dilates the pupils when you’re excited. And in
an excitement of a different sort, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for orgasm.

The other half of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic system, is just as important for human life as the sympathetic, but it doesn’t get as much attention, because it is responsible for the quiet, restorative aspects of life. The parasympathetic system has its own network too, accomplishing most of its business through a single large nerve branching off of the brain stem, called the
vagus nerve
. The vagus sends branches to all the same organs that the autonomic nervous system does, but its actions are opposite. The vagus, for example, slows down the heart. It stimulates salivary glands and speeds up the digestive process. And although the sympathetic system gets credit for the money shot, it is the parasympathetic system that is responsible for sexual arousal.

As you might have guessed, it is the sympathetic system that presents problems for the iconoclast. The sympathetic system causes all the physical manifestations of stress that are well suited for running away from predators or fighting with other humans. But these are primitive physical systems. None are well suited for, or really have anything to do with, creativity and innovation. If you’ve ever had a shot of epinephrine, you know that the physical response is so overwhelming that it is impossible to think. Indeed, that is the whole point of the sympathetic system: action without thought.

The other part of the stress response that gets a lot of attention is the hormonal side. Like neurotransmitters, hormones cause physiological responses in target organs. The main difference between a hormone and a neurotransmitter is that a neurotransmitter is released from a nerve ending at a specific location, while hormones are released into the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. Because hormones course through the entire body, their effects are much more widespread than those of a neurotransmitter. The other big difference, which stems from the mode of release, is how long it takes for these systems to react.
When the sympathetic nervous system fires, you feel the effects instantaneously. Because hormones have to be released into the bloodstream and circulate to their final destination, hormonal responses generally become apparent only after several minutes and sometimes hours.

There are scores of hormones in the human body, but as far as the stress response goes, only one is important: cortisol.
Cortisol
is a steroid and is chemically identical to hydrocortisone—the same stuff you buy in the drugstore as an anti-itch cream. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which look like a small glob of fat sitting on top of each kidney. How do the adrenal glands know when to release cortisol? When the brain tells them to. Although interestingly, the brain doesn’t accomplish this through neuronal connections. When you encounter something stressful, a signal reaches a tiny part of the brain called the
hypothalamus
. The hypothalamus contains several different groups of neurons related to hormonal functions. When the body is stressed the hypothalamus releases a chemical called CRH, which stands for corticotropin releasing hormone. CRH enters the bloodstream right next to the hypothalamus and flows about 1 inch, where it reaches the pituitary gland. The pituitary dangles from the underside of the brain, looking like a pair of mouse testicles. Here, CRH stimulates the release of yet another hormone, called ACTH (adrenocorticotropin releasing hormone). It is ACTH that finally enters the bloodstream, where it flows to the adrenal glands.

BOOK: Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently
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