Book Review: Iconoclast

Over the holidays I read Iconoclast: A Neoroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. It was a great book, providing an accessible overview of the aspects of the brain relevant to what’s described below, supported with a wide range of anecdotal and interesting descriptions of past iconoclasts. A lot of the book describes phenomenon and the brain’s activity that have only recently been made possible with the creation of fMRI, which essentially provide a live video stream of the brain’s activity.

For the record, in the book an iconoclast is a figure who creates and is the force behind new ways of thinking. In the book, familiar names like Bill Gates and Richard Branson abound, but there are also a lot of great historical references and lesser-known contemporary figures that are described as iconoclastic thinkers. Google defines “iconoclast” as:

  • a destroyer of images used in religious worship
  • someone who attacks cherished ideas or traditional institutions
Here are the key takeaways from the book, if you find the below interesting I’d absolutely recommend it:

There are three broad themes that separate iconoclasts from others: Perception, Dealing with Fear, and Social Intelligence.
  • Perception: Iconoclasts “see differently,” which me means both literally and figuratively. Iconoclasts can envision and create solutions that cast aside predefined ways of thinking. The brain’s perceptual system operates by categorizing objects of your perception and even ideas, and the brains of iconoclasts are able to adapt and create new categories. This is how iconoclasts “see differently.” Interestingly, you have an influence on how well your brain is at this. The secret is to constantly bombard your brain with new and different types of experiences and ideas: read books, try new activities, live in a foreign country, etc. It makes sense, right? The more things you do, the more ideas you’re exposed to, the more able you are to identify new opportunities and envision creative solutions to problems that haven’t been encountered before.
  • Dealing with Fear: There are three types of fear identified in the book: fear of public humiliation, fear of failure, and fear of the unknown. The book describes the neuroscientific and common sense reasons how and why fear inhibits action and rational thinking.Successful iconoclasts don’t lack fear, they’re simply able to either embrace it and use it constructively or rationalize and compartmentalize it in their minds. Again this is somewhat obvious, but its also important and the science behind it is also fascinating. 
  • Social Intelligence: So you’ve got a revolutionary idea and you’re ready to bring the force of its awesomeness down on the world, good for you. If you can’t get anyone to go along with you and embrace your idea, then you won’t get off the ground. This one is all about understanding people, and despite its promising potential was probably the weakest chapter in the book. But basically empathy is important, as is some level of social grace.
There’s an interesting chapter at the end about drugs, from adderral to teas to hallucinogens. He describes how all these drugs operate in the brain, and what implications they have for improving one’s ability to engage in iconoclastic thinking. There wasn’t anything revolutionary however, and no pill alone will make you an iconoclast, but certain drugs can help deal with specific aspects of what you need to think like an iconoclast. For example, there are drugs that can help people deal with fear, there are drugs that can make people more social, and there’s evidence that psilocybin (the active drug in hallucinogenic mushrooms) can improve perception and the ability to think in new ways. 

All in all, a really interesting read. I really liked how he broke down iconoclastic thinking into the three requirements described above, that alone was worth the read. The countless anecdotes were sometimes fascinating, and it was also a great overview of how the brain’s perceptual system and fear response system work. 
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