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Have you ever considered that who you think you are is a mental construct of your thoughts, beliefs and experiences and that your identity is forged by this construct?  Neuroscience tells us that once we form a perception of the world we find it very difficult to see in ways different to what we already expect.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns states that the brain is structured for efficiency, not original thinking, so the average person’s brain falls into efficiency traps.  The brain functions more efficiently when our perceptions match what is already stored in our memory files.  It is much easier to place an event, emotion, thought or visual into a file that already exists than to create a new file.  Fear of uncertainty and public ridicule further re-enforce concepts we already hold to be true that have a history of support and acceptance.

“Everything that the brain sees or hears or touches has multiple interpretations.  The One that is ultimately chosen—the thing that is perceived—is simply the brain’s best guess at interpreting what flows into it…These guesses are heavily influenced by past experience and … what other people say.”

People who go against the grain (of either past experience or the opinion of others) or change their stripes midstream are often cast out. This is true socially and politically.  Most leaders rarely change their opinion and perceptions based on new information or changes in circumstances.  These changes come slowly and many only realize their mistaken perceptions in hind sight long after they have left political office.  The brain does not embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and novelty easily.  The iconoclast leader is a rare bird indeed.

The belief that our problems would be solved if we could only sit down and have a rational bipartisan discussion, goes against what neuroscientists tell us about how the brain functions.  Bipartisanship has clearly not worked in Congress because perspectives to date have been too entrenched to shift by the influence of others or new experiences.  Remember, the brain favors perceptions based on past experience and acceptance of the expected. The brain is skewed towards efficiency not novelty.

Berns writes that iconoclasts risk social and professional ostracism and that the “romantic notion to the image of the rugged individualist, who, against all odds, triumphs over conformity”2 is rare as most people are not willing to take those risks.    Indeed, our brains are not wired to accommodate risk and therefore bold action, even in the face of disaster.  This may explain in part why Senator McCain may have labeled himself a maverick in the 2008 election, but when up against critical choices always caved to the Republican Party stance that supported his power base.

This understanding of neuroscience and mental constructs goes a long way to explaining the entrenched positions of politicians, particularly the tea party members who have based their mental construct around fear and paranoia of big government re-enforced no doubt by corporate lobbyist dollars.  This is also why progressives have thrown up their hands in frustration with President Obama’s continued insistence of striking so-called bipartisan deals when clearly they are to the detriment of working Americans and the Democratic Party.

Obama favors a collaborative effort where all sides are presented in an abstract and fluid situation by which they come to a reasoned understanding about how to address pressing political issues. This approach may have worked in the past, but unfortunately this has not been the political reality during his presidency thus far.  However, his perception of this reality files current political events  in the same folder of past experience. Interestingly, Eleanor Kerlow writes in her book, Poisoned Ivy: How Egos, Ideology, and Power Politics Almost Ruined Harvard Law School, that “Obama was friendly and outgoing, but the class succeeding him wanted a tougher editor to lead them.”3

The emotional and intellectual fluidity to create a new folder (neuro-scientifically speaking) for the new political reality that confronts him is virtually impossible for him to consider.  Implementing innovative courageous policy initiatives and taking daring political strategic action is not how he perceives himself in the world.  By understanding how our brains function, it requires little effort to realize why Obama did not invoke Article 14 of the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling instead of negotiating a bad deal with Republicans.  Bold iconoclastic action is not within his mental construct even to prevent economic disaster or the complete alienation of  his base.  This may also explain why he continues the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why he continued the Bush tax cuts and why he appears determined to cut deals with Republicans even when they will sell out the American middle class, the working poor and the values upon which Democrats have stood for generations.

  1. Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. Harvard Business Press. Boston, MA. 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Eleanor Kerlow, Poisoned Ivy: How Egos, Ideology, and Power Politics Almost Ruined Harvard Law School. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 1994.
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