Adept in both psychiatry, (MD), and biomedical engineering, (PhD), Gregory Berns is respected as a leading authority on neuroeconomics. This new field of science combines neurology, psychology and economics to better understand how both individuals and groups make decisions, engage risk and experience reward. Berns directs the Computational and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab (CCNL) at Emory University where his team utilizes fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study brain response by correlating decision making with specific firing patterns of the brain’s neurons.
What have they discovered? Highly creative and innovative people’s brains actually function differently than the average person’s. Berns refers to these types of people as “iconoclasts,” which is also the title of his newest general audience, non-technical book, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently. He defines an iconoclast as “a person who does something others say can’t be done,” and explains “perception lies at the heart of iconoclasm…. Iconoclasts see things differently than other people. Literally.”
Perception is not the same thing as vision. Instead, it is the complex process by which we interpret our experiences of the world. Those interpretations are wired through experiential repetition and at the neurological level include extracting or discarding information. Iconoclasts differ from most people in how they filter information. Their neurological process converts visual data into action, bypassing the areas of the brain generally associated with fear – the amygdala and the insula. Thus, when they observe difficult situations occurring in the world, they are able to think, plan, and act innovatively without reverting to fear-based reactions.
Fear relates primarily to survival. So any situation that threatens survival activates the fear system and puts the body in motion to do something and that something tends to be – retreat.
The importance of the distinctions in how each of us sees the world cannot be underestimated. Berns writes that, “perception is not something that is immutably hardwired into the brain.” Recent neurological findings show that we are fully capable of changing how we perceive life. However, this ability to redirect neurological firing requires an extraordinary amount of mental energy, a principle fundamental to neuroeconomics. As it turns out, one of the brain’s primary survival mechanisms is conserving energy. The brain does this by limiting energy expenditure during normal everyday awareness – an activity that is simultaneously and inextricably tied to the neurological shortcuts it learns and habitually repeats. For most people, though, breaking out of the comfort zone of their energyconservative perceptions is often a fearful proposition.
To provide us with a better understanding of how fear keeps most people from acting on their natural creative urgings, especially during challenging economic times, SuperConsciousness Magazine asked Dr. Gregory Berns to explain the common fearbased neurological response.
SC: How do we get caught up in fear during challenging situations?
GB: The fear system, I would speculate, has evolved over millions of years to essentially protect animals from predators in situations in which they would be eaten or killed. When an animal’s fear system is activated, and that includes humans, it provokes a retreat. It is very rare, if not impossible, when the fear system is active, to promote the opposite of retreat, which would be exploration. These are fundamental principles of evolution.
Why do we have a fear system in the first place? What are the predominant fears that animals have? It comes down to survival. If you think about it, the few things an animal has to do are to survive and reproduce. Fear relates primarily to survival. So any situation that threatens survival activates the fear system and puts the body in motion to do something and that something tends to be – retreat.
That makes a lot of sense for animals, and it probably made sense for our ancestors 100,000 years ago, but in situations today, there are not very many circumstances where our very survival is threatened in such an imminent way. Nevertheless, we have brains that still respond the same way to activate that fear system, which is still very sensitive and tends to provoke the same reaction.
SC: This is important to understand during the current financial situation.
GB: There are many things that can trigger the fear system, a lot of very generic things like phobias, but those are not particularly relevant to the current situation.
The one thing that does trigger it, pretty much universally although not to the same degree, is uncertainty. We are not exactly sure why that is, but the neuroscience evidence is pretty strong that when people have to face decisions in which they don’t have complete information, we will see activity in parts of the brain associated with fear. In particular, we see activity in a structure called the amygdala and we also tend to see activity in another structure called the insula. Both of these structures are generally associated with negative emotional states.
SC: Isn’t there a difference in how iconoclasts perceive potentially threatening situations? In people who can function well in a state of uncertainty, are there distinctions in neurophysiological functioning shown in your fMRI test results?
GB: Potentially. However, when you are talking about uncertainty, there are two very different types of uncertainty. One is what economists refer to as risk. That’s like playing the lottery where you have to make a decision. There’s a possibility of failure, but you know what the odds are and you can at least come to some estimate of the likelihood of success and failure.
As long as you can come to some estimate, you can make a reasonable and rational decision based on that. Now, each person might have a different tolerance for the risk, but at least you can make that decision.
That’s quite different than the circumstance when you don’t even have complete information and you don’t know what’s going to happen and you can’t even estimate the odds of something bad happening. That’s called ambiguity. Those are two different terms for two very different situations.
Most everyone seems to have an innate aversion for ambiguity. Given the choice between a circumstance in which they have incomplete information and one in which they have complete information but it’s still risky, people will generally prefer the risky option, even if it is completely irrational. Again, we don’t know exactly why that is, but that’s how our brains evolved.
They take situations in which they can’t really anticipate what’s going to happen, but then cognitively reframe them so as to estimate some kind of likelihood of success or failure to make a decision.
So, the problem in regards to the current financial situation in general is that we rarely have complete information. This is a big inhibitor of risk taking and innovation because if you are doing something very innovative, you aren’t going to have a track record that you can project on a likelihood of success. You will be faced with situations of ambiguity and situations where you don’t know the odds of success. For most people, that is an impediment and it will stop them. It makes them afraid.
SC: How does the iconoclast overcome that?
GB: Everyone’s different. One of the ways that iconoclasts negotiate these circumstances is to convert ambiguity into risk. Some of that may involve mentally fooling themselves, but I think that’s what most successful innovators do. They take situations in which they can’t really anticipate what’s going to happen, but then cognitively reframe them so as to estimate some kind of likelihood of success or failure to make a decision.
The ability to do this depends entirely on your assumptions. Take the current economic situation: The pessimist will say, “Well, everything is uncertain. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if the banking system is going to be the same as it was. I don’t know if I can get a loan. I don’t know, I don’t know,” which are all correct, you don’t know.
But, if you are to succeed in any kind of business endeavor, in any creative or innovative endeavor in which you have to make some estimate, you have to say: “Well, OK, let’s make some assumptions. Let’s say, worse case scenario, the downturn goes on for one year. What does that mean?” Maybe it actually makes sense to invest now. Iconoclasts make these projections and get out of the trap of, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” and say “Well, let’s run some scenarios.”
SC: Do iconoclasts project ideas and possible outcomes beyond the uncertainty then make calculated decisions towards that risk?
GB: I think it is even subtler than that. Anyone can do that. The question is, “Why do some people act on it and some people don’t?” Iconoclasts, particularly successful ones, have what we call optimism bias, where they tend to downplay negative scenarios. If you really projected out accurately all the different ways things can go, you might come to some very dismal conclusions. But real iconoclasts downplay particularly negative scenarios otherwise they wouldn’t have the faith to actually proceed.
SC: Recently you stated that during these hard times there are incredible opportunities to do things differently. Despite there being risk, and while others wait for this storm to pass, you are busy expanding into new areas. You argue that if you waited for the money or funding or some other outside circumstance to initiate those ideas, opportunities will have passed.
GB: That is correct. In times of uncertainty, there are several possible strategies.
One is: head in the sand, everyone in the bunker, cut back spending, hoard what I have, and wait for the storm to pass. That is a very instinctual response and again, goes back to the survival instinct. When you are afraid, you tend to retreat and hoard what you have. Animals that have the capacity to think through the situation just wait it out. That is a low risk strategy and will probably work to maintain your status quo, which is fine if that is what you want.
The innovator sees everyone else is doing that, and it is precisely in those circumstances that it makes the most sense for them to take risks.
SC: Warren Buffet recently stated “fear leads people to not wanting to spend and not wanting to make investments, and that leads to more fear. We’ll break out of it, but it takes time.” Yet couldn’t the workplace become an innovative place for generating new and creative ideas which could be implemented during this transition period?
GB: There’s a tremendous amount of fear in the workplace because people are concerned as to whether or not they are going to be laid off, which is very rational. But the problem is that this is extremely detrimental to business operations. When people are afraid, it becomes difficult if not impossible to do innovative work, because you have this internal system telling you to retreat and take the safest course.
When people are afraid, it becomes difficult if not impossible to do innovative work, because you have this internal system telling you to retreat and take the safest course.
It is incumbent on business leaders and high level managers to get that fear under control. That is precisely what leadership is: to manage the fears of the people working there and project some level of confidence and optimism. The ship might be sinking but you have to project that optimism.
SC: Wouldn’t any good business leader want to have iconoclasts on their team – because they are so creative even if they can also be disruptive? During these times, how does a business leader integrate innovative ideas?
GB: If you want the novel ideas to emerge, you can’t play it safe. It’s in these circumstances that you need to look to the most innovative and iconoclastic people in any organization. Now, they might not be the most outspoken, as there are different personality types that go with being an iconoclast. Some people are socially awkward, some are shy and some like to provoke. Iconoclasts are not usually your mainstream persons. Managers need to be aware of that and be a little more in tune than they would be normally which of course is difficult because everyone is under pressure to manage costs. But this is a low cost strategy that doesn’t cost much other than attention.
SC: Any other ideas about how to draw out iconoclastic qualities in the workplace?
GB: This can be very industry specific, but one big bottle neck is committee, depending on how decisions are actually made in an organization. In an ideal circumstance, a committee would function to bring diverse opinions to the table and the group could make better decisions collectively than any individual alone, even though that is often rare.
SC: Your ideas suggest that the workplace could evolve into becoming a much more inviting place for the iconoclast which might then also allow others to develop their iconoclastic abilities in an environment of safety.
GB: Yes, even if there is still tension in the workplace. The true iconoclast is often isolated, but you can work with that. You can create tools that allow that person to be integrated.
For most business models to succeed, you need to somehow transition from an idea that is truly novel, truly great and fundamentally different but still convince a large number of people of its merits. Many iconoclasts can’t do that. They simply don’t have the social intelligence to do it. It is the really rare ones that do, which is why there are so few.
Nevertheless, for a manager to recognize the potential and create an environment in which the iconoclast’s ideas can come forward and be integrated into the company, that is a different matter and much more egalitarian. Sometimes the best strategy is to pair people up: the idea person with the social skills person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be large teams. It can simply be two people that work well together and whose skills complement each other.