Inside the Brains of Rebellious Leaders

By: Joe Robinson, a Special to Overdrive

Mark Twain called them “corn-pone opinions.” Take a path that veers from the norm, and you’ll hear from a chorus of naysayers. “That’ll never work.” “Don’t rock the boat.” “That’s impossible.” (Of course, once your idea has been proven to work, they claim to have known it all along.)

Bucking the herd isn’t easy for a species designed to conform, so it takes a certain mindset to be an outlier. “Most people’s brains are just not wired to go against what everybody else is doing,” says Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast and a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta. Berns has taken an unorthodox path himself, exploring the roots of motivation and reward in ultramarathoners, sushi chefs and S&M enthusiasts. He argues that innovation occurs in brains that are adept at not just creative insights, but also at overriding the fears that come along with them–such as facing flak from the peanut gallery.

Iconoclastic thinking–defined by Berns as doing what others say can’t be done–demands a brain that functions differently from the standard model in three areas: perception; the fear response; and social intelligence, which is necessary to persuade others of the validity of your unsanctioned vision.

What we perceive at any given moment is filtered by an Everest of habit and beliefs, not to mention the influence of others. Berns points to our “millions of years of evolution as social creatures. You couldn’t survive without your tribe. It’s literally burned into our brains to be part of communities. That means we tend to perceive things similarly.”

“When you look at problems,” he adds, “you tend to perceive them in well-worn paths in ways that you’ve perceived them before. That’s the first roadblock in innovating, overcoming your perceptual biases. Most people work in the same place every day. We get used to thinking in certain ways in certain environments.”

Our biochemistry craves novelty. Just the anticipation of a novel event can set off the release of dopamine, the brain’s built-in motivational prod-and-reward system for learning. To break the cul-de-sac in perception, Berns suggests shaking up your routine, traveling or doing things you haven’t done before. Getting away from the ties and people that bind opens up possibilities that would go unimagined when you’re operating on autopilot.

But novel experiences can also trigger the fear response. Key to pushing through is reframing negative scenarios. “Uncertainty always has two sides: the possibility of gain and the possibility of loss,” Berns says, citing the example of a bad financial statement. “If the first instinct is, ‘I’m losing money; I gotta fire someone,’ that’s a fear response, and that will lead to contraction of your business. Or you can look at the other side of the equation. ‘Let’s think about how we could increase revenue.’ That’s more of a positive frame.”

Innovators must also face another fear: that of public ridicule. The iconoclast’s brain not only tolerates a high degree of ambiguity, it also deals well with the slings and arrows of public disapproval, Berns says. King Gillette put up with chortles for years as he tried to do what folks said was impossible and sharpen thin sheet steel for his new razor. “Hey, Gillette. How’s the razor?” the naysayers would hoot. Needless to say, Gillette was unfazed.

Still, following one’s own path can be highly stressful. Berns cites a study in which subjects tested individually got the right answer to a question 86 percent of the time, but when put into a group and told that the group held a wrong answer for that question, conformity changed minds and drove the number down to 59 percent. To counter social isolation, try talking to innovators who have been there, Berns suggests. They can also help you overcome the other main issue for innovators–using social intelligence to sell a doubting world on your idea. “You have to have the courage to see it through to the end,” Berns says. “The ideas are just the beginning.”

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