Oliver Burkeman on stimulating the intellect

There are numerous books that promise to help you "think like a genius", or like Einstein, or even - if Einstein isn't good enough - How To Think Like History's 10 Most Revolutionary Minds. But they're beset with problems. Some try to teach a "secret formula", even though following someone else's five-step system is surely antithetical to genius. Some confuse correlation with causation: Thomas Jefferson was an early riser, and he basically invented the US, so you should get up early, too! Others are plain odd. In How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Gelb recommends doing an "ambiguity dance" to express feelings about uncertainty. I can't imagine Leonardo doing an ambiguity dance. Though if he had done, maybe he'd have come up with a flying machine that actually worked, the loser.

"Genius" is a slippery word, anyway. The American neuroscientist Gregory Berns uses a different term as the title of his new book on thinking differently: Iconoclast. Looking at original thinking as "iconoclastic" - as disruptive of the usual ways we're conditioned to see the world - turns out to be much more useful. It may even help you think a bit more like Leonardo.

Berns' starting point is that the brain "is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat": it needs energy to operate, and has evolved to use it as efficiently as possible. So when it perceives the outside world, or imagines things, the average brain uses as many short cuts as it can - past experience, other people's opinions - to avoid the taxing effort of perceiving or imagining afresh. It's literally harder work to perceive what you're not expecting to perceive, which is why airport security screeners who watch thousands of harmless bags roll by will at times fail to notice even a very prominent gun. To test the brain's laziness for yourself, Berns suggests, close your eyes and imagine the sun setting on a beach: the image is such a cliché that it's tough to visualise it except in vague and clichéd form. (Now see what happens if you imagine a sunset on Pluto.) One solution is to "bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before", to deny it the opportunity to use short cuts - by travelling, meeting new people, working in a different environment, or reading about unfamiliar subjects.

But there's another barrier to iconoclastic thinking: fear. Once you've jolted your brain on to a new path of thought, pursuing it further - either in your head or by acting on it - will stimulate the fear of uncertainty, failure or disapproval. I've often wondered if this is why many people get their best ideas in the shower, or why I get them on trains and planes - contexts where you can't physically put an idea into practice and so, for the time being, can't fail, either. Iconoclasts find ways to coexist with their fears, Berns says. It's by learning that skill, and by actively seeking unfamiliar experience, that we non-iconoclasts can emulate them. Ambiguity dances? Not so much.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.