Many years ago I recall sitting in Madison Square Garden with a friend of mine watching his son box in the National Golden Gloves tournament. Between the ninth and tenth round, without any provocation whatsoever, a guy two rows in front of us suddenly stood up and hurled a beer bottle toward the ring. It smashed against the corner post sending brown glass shards flying everywhere.
“THIS IS THE GUY WHO THREW IT! THIS GUY! RIGHT HERE!!” No sooner had the bottle landed, when a slight, sandy-haired teenager sitting several rows behind me raced down and began fearlessly pointing out the offending bottle-thrower while I simply sat there in shock and dismay.
Over the years I’ve often wondered what allowed that kid to respond so immediately and fearlessly to what was essentially a dangerous criminal act. In his recently published book, Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, Emory University professor Gregory Berns provides some answers that make a lot of sense to me.
Iconoclasts R Us
Iconoclasts – dissident, nonconformists – are mostly made, not born, Berns argues. He lists three brain processes as primarily responsible. As children such people get strong parental encouragement and generally receive great support for perceiving people, places and things in the world in unique ways. Iconoclasts see the same things as you and me – that is, their eyes take in the same images – but their brains have learned to “translate” what they see into unique perceptions. Seeing and perceiving are very different neurobiological processes. So, for example, a child versed in neuroscience early ( ;-o ) might see a picture of a neuron and readily say, “Hey, that looks just like a mini-version of the whole universe!” One key is that such children are rarely ridiculed or shamed for translating what they see into unexpected perceptions.
The second brain process that contributes to the growth and development of fearless children involves things that contribute to social ease and intelligence. Successful iconoclasts have generally good connectivity in the so-called “resonance circuits.” This allows them to connect with other people, especially kindred spirits. It’s not an accident that Bill Gates had a Paul Allen and a Steve Ballmer at Microsoft (and now his wife, Melinda and Warren Buffett for his Foundation work), that Sergey Brin has a Larry Page, or that Albert Einstein had the three other members of his Olympia Academy. Such comrades are critical for an iconoclast’s success. So is good repeated parental modeling along with many of the things that contribute to optimal Executive Function (EF). All can work in support of increasing social ease and intelligence. The challenge here for many parents, is the requirement to grow their own social ease and intelligence should they find it lacking in themselves. We can’t authentically model and teach what we haven’t fully integrated in ourselves.
Regulating the Fear Response
Finally, the third brain process necessary for iconoclasts of any age to master is how they learn to recognize and manage the neurophysiological experience commonly known as fear. If you’re someone who thinks and acts differently than other people do, you’re most likely going to be the recipient of grief from those who either don’t understand you, are envious of you, or are frightened by you. Fear affects the brain in ways that negatively affect perception and limit the ability to take effective action.
The Three Flavors of Fear
Fear primarily comes in three flavors: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and fear of looking stupid. From a neuroendocrine perspective, each of these fears has the same thing in common: they activate our limbic system, flooding the body and brain with cortisol and adrenaline, often unnecessarily. In order to help kids effectively deal with these fear responses to their “differentness,” we first of all, need to effectively model for them, and then teach kids all about how adrenaline and cortisol operate in the body in response to such real or imagined frightening things.
Learning ways to regulate our neurophysiology after our limbic system has been hijacked – and it happens more often than we realize – is critical information to be able to provide our children and to model ourselves. Fear and anxiety are the enemies of intelligence, and so knowing effective ways to reduce these internal experiences and restore ourselves to optimal functioning are essential. Here are a few good ways: physical exercise, 7-11 breathing, Smart Moves, manual labor, talking to a trusted friend, listening to someone else going through hard times, dancing, martial arts, yoga, and any other activity that involves physical actions that invite cross-body motion and movement. Many of these activities help strengthen the neural network in the anterior prefrontal cortex, an area known to regulate impulse control and help delay gratification. Good things for budding iconoclasts to be able to easily do at any age.