Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 14, 2009

Iconoclastic Travel: Applying Brain Science to Travel and Tourism

Neurological connections

Whether we are travel journalists, public relations experts for travel destinations, or working in some other area of expertise related to promoting the largest industry on the planet (travel and tourism), we are all storytellers.

The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes. ─ Marcel Proust

Having made an initial sweeping statement, I will also now be so bold as to suggest that our prime skill and objective is not only to shape the world’s perceptions of the travel destinations we either promote or write about, but to also understand how perception itself plays a critical role in everything we do.

Furthermore it is equally important therefore to understand the nature of perception, because if we do not understand how perception is shaped, either through culturally-defined preconceptions (many call this behaviour ethnocentrism), we may actually end up communicating quite a different message than we had intended.

And this is where the increasingly important field of study called “brain science” comes in; an emerging science that may cause us to re-examine first of all how we ourselves perceive all the elements inherent in any destination, but more importantly how we may misinterpret what we have experienced and even (in the worst scenarios) perpetuate fixed notions about places and the people who inhabit them. And at the very worst, this can lead to negative stereotyping or unintended but nonetheless negative bias.

And if our “job” is to promote tourism and all the benefits and advantages (for example intercultural dialogue) that are, in theory, both process and product of the business of travel, we owe it to ourselves to examine carefully the single most common element in this vastly multicultural world ─ the human brain.

A neuroscientist and neuroeconomics professor challenges our awareness of how we see the world

When I first read Gregory Berns’ book Iconoclast: a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, I was really thinking about how his theories have an impact on my role as a travel journalist. However, as I worked my way through this very convincing and scientific book, I was surprised to find significant implications for the entire travel and tourism industry.

The nature of the mind of the iconoclast

The word has been around for a long time, and for anyone who enjoys researching the etymological roots of such words, you will discover that an iconoclast is “a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.” He or she is also the kind of person who (consciously or subconsciously; although I suspect the latter) “attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.”

An iconoclast can tend to make people uncomfortable, but usually the modern iconoclast only attacks ideas and institutions; so if you have a friend or colleague whom you suspect of having iconoclastic leanings, you need not fear for your safety. He or she will probably not run amok, but he or she may challenge your notions and cause you to rethink how you have been doing what you do.

No two brains are exactly the same

Gregory Berns’s theories are provocative but they do make a lot of sense, especially since he carefully supports his observations using rational thought and the scientific method.

Initially he draws our attention to three fundamental brain processes which, as he explains, influence almost everything we do. And these three elements are:

• Perception
• Fear response
• Social intelligence

A lot of what he says may not seem particularly new or earthshaking, but he begins by taking us on a voyage around the brain in which he shows how the physical workings of the brain place limitations on the way we make decisions.

He describes the human brain as essentially lazy, desirous of taking shortcuts wherever possible. Therefore, what we “see” through our mind’s eye (our perceptions of the world) are not necessarily “real”; but they are certainly influenced by our general human need to be wary of the unknown (fear) and they are also supported or even perpetuated by all kinds of social systems that encourage us to see things in a certain way.

In the brain of the true iconoclast however, the interplay of those three functions is quite different. And in his book Berns identifies many individuals he considers iconoclastic, in particular individuals like Picasso and Van Gogh. The former he categorizes as a successful iconoclast because Picasso had the ability to “work the room” and bring many others around to his way of seeing the world. Poor Van Gogh, on the other hand, seemed to lack this ability to communicate his iconoclastic vision to others. In brief he did not have Picasso’s ability to navigate the dynamic social network, especially that very specialized perceptual network of the world of art.

Berns also emphasizes that perception itself is not hardwired into the human brain; it is a process learned through experience, and subject to constant revision. What the senses “see” must be interpreted. However, given that the human brain is bombarded by so much stimuli from metaphysical moment to moment, the way we interpret new environments especially (travel destinations our brains have not had the time or luxury of adapting to), the perceptual part of our brain can tend to make erroneous judgements.

Above all, Berns makes a clear distinction between vision and perception. What registers on the retina or is “heard” by the ear, or even perceived through the complex olfactory organs including the taste buds) is only a quick snapshot of the world because, quite frankly, the brain is busy. And that is why it constantly looks for shortcuts.

Of course we are highly visual animals, and when we think about something, it is often a visual image that “comes to mind.” But from a scientific point of view, vision is just photons entering the eye and being transformed into neural signals by the brain. Perception, however, is the process of interpreting these signals. The eye is the lens, but the brain is where the distinct and individualistic processing of what is “seen” occurs.

Chacun a son goût

When I was growing up in a quintessential “anglo-saxon” culture in beautiful downtown Canada, if anyone had invited me to eat raw fish, the perceptual part of my brain would have immediately rejected the notion. Today, however, I love sushi, and there are sushi bars and restaurants just about everywhere I go these days, many if not most of them are not even operated by people of Japanese heritage. Over time, however, my lazy brain got quite used to the idea of eating “raw fish” and in a sense made a significant cultural shift in how it perceives the culinary world.

Initially I was the victim of my cultural “blind spot.,” And by the way, the visual blind spot is unique to humans and other primates. Dogs and cats do not have blind spots. That’s probably why my cat is always rubbing up against my legs when I am indulging myself in a sushi moment.

Predicting and the “normal” versus the iconoclastic thinker

Our brains, as I am sure you are aware, do their best on our behalf, especially when it comes to predicting. Its basic job is to respond to all that stimuli and make instantaneous “where” and “what” judgements about what we should do in order to proceed through life safely and to not make constant faux pas.

However, if the brain is exposed to external stimuli that are new to it (like a stroll through Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili marketplace), it, and we, may or may not have difficulty predicting what is coming next, how best to “behave,” and how to “function” at maximum efficiency. It all depends, I suppose, on the degree of iconoclastic “vision” that is embedded in our neurons.

The brains of experienced travellers of course learn how to navigate such new environments because, as Berns also points out, “There are several different routes to forcing the brain out of its lazy mode of perception, but the theme linking these methods depends on the element of surprise. The brain must be provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions.”

Travel journalists tend to like surprises. Is this not why so many of us love to travel? Is this not the real challenge of our peregrinations?

Fortunately, as Berns points out, “the networks that govern both perception and imagination can be reprogrammed. The frontal cortex that contains the rules for decision-making, can refigure neural networks in the visual pathways so that the individual can see things that she [sic] didn’t see before simply by deploying her [sic] attention differently.”

And that I think is the good news, especially the use of the word “imagination.” Surely imagining is a form of predicting, a visionary process.

So what has this got to do with travel and tourism?

Well, it seems to me that we are in the business of providing insight, which can be a pleasurable experience. Not all leisure travel means stretching out on a beach under a carcinogenic sun. And the more innovative, novel, or even radical the travel experience, the more chance that the “consumer” will generate new insights.

As we have seen in so many other social institutions (political ones especially) the tendency to over-categorize is death to imagination. Berns theories seem to suggest that human beings (always a migratory species) progress and achieve best when they seek out environments where they have no experience.

But why do we hesitate to go where no one has gone before? Well, we are also rational human beings and the fear of the unknown (or the unpredictable) inhibits us from doing so, perhaps quite rightly. It’s a conundrum. Why would you put yourself in harm’s way?

But even in the “tried and true” destinations, there is always more than meets the eye. And although the business of travel may in the past have emphasized a “one size fits all” experience, in the new social media world of travel and travel journalism, the consumer is being encouraged more and more to go beyond the conventional borders of the imagination.

Travel is indeed risky business, as our good friend Cyrano de Bergerac knew so well:

Yes, all my laurels you [Death] have riven away
And all my roses; yet in spite of you,
There is one crown I bear away with me
And tonight, when I enter before God,
My salute shall sweep all the stars away
From the blue threshold! One thing without stain,
Unspotted from the world, in spite of doom
Mine own! And that is… that is…
My panache!

To hear Gregory Berns talk about iconoclastic thinking, click here

You can also visit his website and see his book at: Gregory S. Berns


Please also see the following video from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s well-known science program “The Nature of Things”.


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