Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist. He’s not just any old run of the mill physicist. He did his PhD under the legendary Richard Feynman. He wrote a book with the even more legendary Stephen Hawking. In recent years, he has spent more time as a screenwriter, including for Star Trek and McGyver. Oh, and he is also written a bunch of books on the ways we think. In short, his is not a mind to ignore.
Unfortunately (for me), I had never read anything he wrote before Elastic, which helped me understand why we are having so much trouble dealing with the unprecedented problems we face today. That was my mistake.
Mlodinow paints a familiar picture of a world that is changing in unprecedented ways and at unprecedented rates of speed. Yet, he makes the also familiar case that we aren’t doing all that good a job of dealing with that change.
His argument gets interesting when he talks about our being change averse and how we don’t need to be that way. We have to start, however, with what he sees as a particularly vexing problem—our tendency to follow traditional “scripts” when we face new problems. Put simply, we tend to think that because “x” worked in the past, it will work again. We think deductively. We see a problem. We apply a “script” to it and act accordingly. That, of course, is how he and I recall we were trained when we became scientists.
As he puts it toward the end of the book:
The result is a brain well adapted to its environment but wired to interpret the world through the lens of what has worked in the past. That allows us to rapidly deal with familiar situations, but it can constrain us from solving others (178).
Alas, these days, that rarely works because those tried and true methods fall short on at least two grounds. First, they leave out emotion, intuition, and other mental traits that help us deal with qualitatively new problems. Second, they ignore our inductive sides in we “reconnect the dots” in new and novel ways. Both, in turn, require us to be “elastic” in the way we “expand” and “bend” our minds in new and novel ways.
Mlodinow considers lots of intriguing examples that may or may not be of interest to most of my readers—brain physiology, the cooperation of ant colonies, and more. What should matter is his notion that real innovation comes when people begin asking questions like, “why am I wrong?” Then, they begin reframing the question(s) and, therefore, reconnecting the intellectual dots.
And, we don’t tend to do that when we are working within a current paradigm, whether that is a scientific or a personal one. We both have to break out of our mold. In that sense, Mlodinow joins the growing group of analysts who stress the importance of daydreaming and doing other, similar things that take us away from the day-to-day grind and let our creativity bubble up. In other words, that gets us out of what he calls our default mode.
In my case, I come up with my best (and also my worst) new ideas when I’m not “working” and what Mlodinow calls my cognitive filters stop functioning. I’ve always thought that that was a good excuse for watching so many Yankees games. But, now, I realize that there may be method to my madeness—or at least my laziness.