Gregory S. Berns: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 16th, 2011 by bobmorris

Gregory S. Berns

 

Gregory Berns occupies the Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics, serves as Director of the Center for Neuropolicy, and is a professor in both psychiatry and economics at Emory University. He earned an A.B. degree at Princeton University (his major was physics), an M.D. degree at the University of California, San Diego, and a Ph.D. degree at the University of California, Davis. His research uses brain scanning technologies to decode the relationship of neural activity to decision-making. The approach is called Neuroeconomics. He and his research associates are particularly interested in how the brain integrates personal valuation decisions with the effects of social messages. His work is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. Berns is the author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently published in 2008 by Harvard Business Press and a recipient of several prestigious awards. For example, it was named by Fast Company magazine as one of the 10 best business books of 2008.

Morris: A number of articles and several books in recent years have focused their attention on fMRI. For those who have no idea what it is and what it can reveal, please explain.

Berns: fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging.  It uses an MRI scanner to measure blood flow in the brain while a person is thinking about or doing something in the scanner.  The technology has been in widespread research use for 15 years and has helped uncover how specific parts of the brain function during different types of cognitive tasks. In recent years, it has been increasingly applied to more complex tasks.  For the most part, anything that can be presented on a computer screen, we can study human brain responses with fMRI.  Understanding what these measurements actually mean, however, is a fair bit more complicated.

Morris: In Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, Martin Lindstrom shares what he learned about “what’s going on in our brains that makes us chose one brand over another – what information passes through our brain’s filter and what information doesn’t — well that would be key to truly building brands of the future.” His book offers what strike me as preliminary conclusions about neuromarketing. In fact, how much do we know for certain about how we make various types of decisions, such as which product to purchase, which political candidate to vote for, or what to plant in a garden?

Berns: Neuromarketing is more recent application of fMRI.  I think we have to be very careful in interpreting claims like this.  For example, fMRI measurements are noisy.  You have to make many measurements to be sure what you have is a real signal and not just a random fluctuation.  There is a huge amount of variability between people.  This means you need to study an adequate number of people, typically 30-50, to get a good idea of what constitutes a typical responses.  Even then, we must be careful in interpreting what brain activations mean.  The brain is a very efficient multitasker, which means that it will use a given part of the brain for many different functions.  This means you can’t always point to activity in a particular brain region, and know what a person is thinking.  I think this aspect of neuromarketing has been way overhyped, and any neuromarketer that claims to predict what people will do is overselling the technology at this point.  I say, prove it.

Morris: To what extent is the human brain “hardwired”? To what extent can it be “rewired”?

Berns: Everything is hardwired to the extent that the act of thinking depends on physical molecules moving around the brain.  Unlike a computer, the distinction between hardware and software is not so clear.  We do know that once the brain reaches maturity, it is much slower to change.  It *can* change under the right circumstances.  Novelty will force the brain to adapt because it can’t rely on past experience.  And most interesting, exercise, because it releases brain growth factors, is probably the best lubricant for rewiring.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest misconception that people have about what the mind is and does?

Berns: That you only use 15% of your brain.  In fact, you use all of it.  Just not all at the same time.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Iconoclast. The etymological definition of an iconoclast (from the Late Greek word eikonoklastes) is one who is a “breaker or destroyer of images” and centuries later, the word meant “one who attacks orthodox beliefs or institutions.” Who are a few of history’s most prominent iconoclasts and what do they share in common?

Berns: Leo III, emperor of Constantinople in the 8th c. AD was the one who got the name when he destroyed the golden icon of Christ over the palace gates.  But more recently, I would list Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightengale, Martin Luther King, Jr., and one of my favorites, Richard Feynmann.

Morris: As you explain, “The overarching theme of this book is that iconoclasts are able to do things that others say can’t be done, because iconoclasts perceive things differently than other people.” How so?

Berns: The ability to do something different begins with how you see the world.  The visual system of the brain takes inputs from the eyes, and converts them into a mental image that we become conscious of.  The brain will do this in the most efficient way possible, which usually means interpreting what the eyes transmit in the most familiar way.  Once you’ve seen something, the brain will stop processing it fully.  For most people, this makes it very difficult to see things different.  But that is exactly what has to happen before you can do something differently.  Again, novelty and exercise can help with this.

Morris: Foe those who have not as yet read Iconoclast, please explain the three “traits” that modern iconoclasts share in common.

Berns: First, the ability to perceive the world in ways that are different. Next, the ability to control the natural fear response to things that are unfamiliar and different. Also, aving the social intelligence to sell their ideas to people that can’t do the second.

Morris: What is the relationship between imagination and the visual system?

Berns: One of the more intriguing results from neuroscience in recent years is the discovery that when you visually imagine something, you use the visual parts of the brain.  This means that the same shortcuts the brain makes in processing vision, like relying on past experience, probably applies to imagination as well.  Unfortunately, this means that for most people, imagination suffers from a stark lack of originality.

Morris: What do you mean when suggesting that the brain can sometimes be “too efficient”?

Berns: Efficiency works great for making split-second decisions.  Not so good for coming up with new ideas.  Brain circuits will always tend to follow previous patterns of activity because reactivating something costs a lot less energy than creating new pathways, which involves turning on genes that synthesize proteins and such.

Morris: At one point in your book, you suggest, “The brain must be provided with something that it has never processed before to force it out of predictable perceptions.” As I read that, I immediately recalled Sophocles’ Oedipus who gouged out his eyes and Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester as he wandered sightless on the moors. Only when blind did these two tragic figures perceive the realities that, previously, their vision had denied or did not see. Is that an accurate assessment?

Berns: Well, I don’t think I would go as far as recommending eye gouging as a means to creativity, but the metaphor is accurate. We see what we expect to see.  And many times, we must put ourselves into unfamiliar territory to prevent our brains from lapsing into this predictability.

Morris: The contemporary iconoclasts of greatest interest to you seem to be those who are visionaries, builders, and in some instances revolutionaries. Hence your frequent use of the word “epiphany.” Several of those whom you discuss experienced a “shock of recognition” that revealed both a profound insight and a compelling vision. To what extent (if any) can one prepare to experience such a moment?

Berns: The best advice is to put yourself into situations that increase the likelihood of experiencing something shockingly new.  Travel, especially to foreign cultures, is effective.  Interact with people from different backgrounds and disciplines.  And exercise.  Exercise is the most effective way to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates the growth of neurons.

Morris: Few people ever “shatter conventional thinking” but those who read Iconoclast will at least be much better prepared to understand, appreciate and support those who do. Was that among your objectives when writing the book?

Berns: I wanted to reach a business audience to show that neuroscience discovery has value in far-reaching ways.  Interestingly, it has also resonated with the arts community, especially those in design-related fields.

Morris: In Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, Martin Lindstrom shares what he learned about “what’s going on in our brains that makes us chose one brand over another – what information passesthrough our brain’s filter and what information doesn’t — well that would be key to truly building brands of the future.” His book offers what strike me as preliminary conclusions about neuromarketing. In fact, how much do we know for certain about how we make various types of decisions, such as which product to purchase, which political candidate to vote for, or what to plant in a garden?

Berns: Neuromarketing is a more recent application of fMRI. I think we have to be very careful in interpreting claims like this. For example, fMRI measurements are noisy. You have to make many measurements to be sure what you have is a real signal and not just a random fluctuation. There is a huge amount of variability between people. This means you need to study an adequate number of people, typically 30-50, to get a good idea of what constitutes a typical response. Even then, we must be careful in interpreting what brain activations mean. The brain is a very efficient multitasker, which means that it will use a given part of the brain for many different functions. This means you can’t always point to activity in a particular brain region, and know what a person is thinking. I think this aspect of neuromarketing has been way overhyped, and any neuromarketer that claims to predict what people will do is overselling the technology at this point. I say, prove it.

Morris: To what extent is the human brain “hardwired”? To what extent can it be “rewired”?

Berns: Everything is hardwired to the extent that the act of thinking depends on physical molecules moving around the brain. Unlike a computer, the distinction between hardware and software is not so clear. We do know that once the brain reaches maturity, it is much slower to change. It *can* change under the right circumstances. Novelty will force the brain to adapt because it can’t rely on past experience. And most interesting, exercise, because it releases brain growth factors, is probably the best lubricant for rewiring.

* * *

If you wish to read the complete interview, please contact me at interllect@mindspring.com.

Berns invites you to check out the resources at these Web sites:

Main lab research site
www.ccnl.emory.edu

Neuropolicy Center
www.neuropolicy.emory.edu

Occasional Blog
www.psychologytoday.com/blog/plus2sd

 

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