Your Elastic Mind

To survive in an environment of constant stimulation and rapid change, elastic thinking is essential. Fortunately, we already have the ability. We just need to give ourselves the chance to use it.

By Leonard Mlodinow, published March 7, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

Photo by David Brahney

Not long ago, if we wanted to take a trip, we'd check out a guidebook or two, get AAA maps, and call the airline and hotels, or we'd talk to one of the country's 18,000 travel agents. Today, people use, on average, 26 websites when planning a vacation, and must weigh an avalanche of offers and alternatives, with prices that change not only as a function of when in the day you wish to travel but also as a function of when you are looking. Much has been written about the accelerating pace of change and the rapid technological innovation that fuels it. What is not so often discussed: the new demands on how we must think in order to thrive in this era. 

There are certain talents that can help us, qualities of thought that have always been useful but are now essential—for example, the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction, the capability to rise above conventional mindsets and reframe the questions we ask, the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms, the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas, and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure. That's a diverse bouquet of talents, but as psychologists and neuroscientists have elucidated the brain processes behind them, those talents have been revealed as different aspects of a coherent cognitive style. I call it elastic thinking

Elastic thinking endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and overcome the neural and psychological barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the existing order. It's important to understand how our brains produce elastic thinking, and how we can nurture it. In a large body of research one quality stands out above all the others—unlike analytical reasoning, elastic thinking arises from what scientists call "bottom-up" processes. 

A brain can do mental calculations the way a computer does, from the top down, with the brain's high-level executive structures dictating the approach. But, due to its unique architecture, a biological brain can also perform calculations from the bottom up. In this mode, individual neurons fire in complex fashion, without direction from an executive—and with valuable input from the brain's emotional centers. That kind of processing is nonlinear and can produce ideas that seem far afield and would not have arisen in the step-by-step progression of analytical thinking. 

Though no computer and few animals excel at elastic thinking, this ability is built into the human brain. The more we understand it and the bottom-up mechanisms through which our mind produces it, the better we can all learn to harness it to face challenges in our personal lives and work environments. 

Finding Comfort in the New

A widespread myth holds that people are averse to novelty and change.  But if we are, psychologists must have missed it, because if you search the research literature, you'll find nary a mention of change aversion. Instead, as far as human nature goes, in the absence of negative consequences, we tend to be attracted to both novelty and change. This trait, called "neophilia," is written about in the literature. Indeed, along with reward dependence, harm avoidance, and persistence, neophilia is considered one of the four basic components of human temperament. 

An individual's general attitude toward novelty and change is affected by both nature and nurture. The influence of our environment is most apparent in the evolution of human attitudes over time. A few centuries ago, most people's lives were characterized by repetitive tasks, long hours of solitude, and a dearth of stimulation. Novelty and change were rare. People were suspicious of them, while being comfortable with conditions that we would find extremely tedious. And by "extremely tedious" I mean a 60-hour work week spent chipping pieces of rock so that they could be stacked to build a structure, or using a hand ax to chop down and trim a 50-foot maple tree, or spending weeks sitting in a cramped stagecoach while traveling from New York to Ohio. Since then, the availability of stimulation and our thirst for it have grown—especially in the twentieth century, which saw the rise of electricity, radio, television, movies, and new modes of transportation. But even that evolution of our attitudes was nothing compared with the transformation wrought by the advances of the past 20 years. 

There is peril and promise in every decision about whether to embrace novelty. But as the pace of change has quickened, the calculus governing the benefits of embracing novelty has been dramatically altered. Society today bestows rewards upon those who are comfortable with change, and it may punish those who are not, for what used to be the safe terrain of stability is now often a dangerous minefield of stagnation.

Our evolving attitude is an adaptation, but it is also a blossoming, for we have always had the potential to make great adjustments; it is in our genes and one of our defining traits. Compared with other species, humans love novelty and change. "We [humans] jump borders. We push into new territory, even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don't do this," says Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. So although our current era makes unprecedented demands on us, it's actually just asking us to tap into a quality we've had all along.

While your degree of neophilia is an important indicator of your comfort in confronting novelty and change, it is your cognitive style—your manner of drawing conclusions, making decisions, and solving problems—that determines the approach you take when facing the challenges that arise from such situations. Your cognitive style is probably neither purely analytical nor purely elastic but, rather, has elements of each. Within bounds that vary among individuals, the mix that you employ will depend upon the situation, your mood, and other factors. Most important, the approach that your mind tends to adopt can be altered if you work at it.

Photo by David Brahney

Staying Ahead of Your Time

David Wallerstein was not someone you would have thought of as a master of innovation. A young executive at the staid Balaban & Katz theater chain in the 1960s, he spent his days worrying about the bottom line in a marginal business. Then, as now, it wasn't tickets that generated the bulk of a theater's revenue; it was popcorn and Coke. Wallerstein, like everyone else, focused on increasing the sales of those concessions, and, like everyone else, he tried all the conventional tricks—two-for-one deals, matinee specials, and more. Profit remained flat. 

Then Wallerstein had an epiphany. Maybe people wanted more popcorn but didn't want to be seen eating two bags of it. Perhaps they feared that buying a second bag might make them appear piggish. He decided that if he could find a way to circumvent their aversion to buying a second bag, it would help profitability. The solution was easy: Offer a larger bag. So Wallerstein introduced a new size of popcorn to moviegoers—jumbo. The results astonished him. Not only did popcorn sales immediately shoot upward, but so did sales of that other high-profit treat, Coca-Cola. 

Wallerstein had unearthed what today is a basic law in the food industry: People will gorge on enormous quantities of food if "enormous" is one of the serving sizes offered. In the Bible, gluttony is a sin, but apparently people consider a restaurant menu to be a higher authority, and if it offers an eight-scoop banana split, that gives us permission. Economists write many scholarly articles starting with the assumption that people act rationally. Wallerstein, on the other hand, uncovered a truth about actual human behavior. So did the food industry adopt his strategy? No. 

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote about what he called "paradigm shifts" in science. These are alterations in thinking that represent more than incremental advances. They are alterations of the framework of thinking, of the set of shared concepts and assumptions within which scientists do their theorizing (until the next paradigm shift). Solving problems and drawing conclusions within an existing framework requires a blend of analytical and elastic thinking. But the act of envisioning a new framework for thought relies heavily on the elastic component—skills such as imagination and integrative thinking. 

Paradigm shifts are peculiar in that they leave many previously successful people behind, people whose rigidity of thought causes them to cling to the old framework, despite often overwhelming evidence that the paradigm shift is valid. Or sometimes, those who cannot accept a paradigm shift form the vast majority, and the shift's implementation is blocked or delayed. 

Wallerstein's approach to selling snacks represented a paradigm shift. It was heresy in the 1960s, when people viewed consuming large amounts of food as unattractive, and executives couldn't accept the idea that with their nudging, that might change—that it was simply the act of having to purchase the second helping that stood in the way of unbridled consumption.

Even when Wallerstein landed at McDonald's in the mid-1970s, he couldn't convince Ray Kroc, its founder, to introduce a larger size of french fries. "If people want more fries," Kroc said, "they can buy two bags." McDonald's finally adopted the strategy in 1990. By then, "supersizing" had become conventional wisdom. But it had taken the food industry longer to recognize the law of human gluttony than it took the physics community to embrace the theory of relativity.

Kuhn wrote that scientists hold institutionalized beliefs that may, on occasion, be altered by a transformational discovery. That is also true of our personal life. We each develop our point of view on common issues during our first few decades of life or our first years in a job. We form a framework to apply those ideas when we're called upon to draw conclusions in those realms. For some, those paradigms never evolve, but for the fortunate they do, often in Kuhnian jumps. Those who are open to such personal paradigm shifts—to altering their attitudes and beliefs—have always had an advantage because they are more able to adapt to changing circumstances. That is especially important today.

Photo by David Brahney

Thinking When You're Not Thinking

Every creation begins as a challenge, just as every answer begins as a question. The elastic thinking that produces ideas doesn't consist of a linear train of steps, as analytical thought does. Sometimes big, sometimes inconsequential, sometimes in crowds, sometimes as loners, our ideas seem to just appear. But ideas don't come from nowhere; they are produced in our unconscious minds.

Before the technology that made neuroscience possible, it was enormously difficult to understand how a daydream or a wandering mind could produce answers when our conscious efforts to do so had failed. Today we know that quiet brains are not idle, and that in periods of mental peace, our unconscious may be overflowing with activity. Today, we can measure and monitor the physical underpinnings of that activity. We understand that, magical as it may seem, thinking while we are not consciously focused is a fundamental feature of the mammalian brain, one possessed even by lowly rodents. Known as the brain's default mode of thought, it is a key mental process in elastic thinking. 

Marcus Raichle calls what he has been studying for the past 20 years "dark energy." In astrophysics, the term refers to something mysterious that permeates all of space and constitutes two-thirds of all the energy in the universe, yet goes unseen in everyday life. As a result, it went unnoticed through centuries of astronomy and physics, until it was discovered by accident in the late 1990s. But Raichle is a neuroscientist, not an astronomer, and the energy he studies is the "dark energy" of the brain—the energy of its default mode. 

The analogy is apt because the dark energy of the default mode is a kind of background energy—it arises from the background of cerebral activity. And despite being substantial, it, too, was long hidden from us, because the default mode is not activated during everyday activity. Instead, it becomes active when the executive brain is not directing our analytical thought processes to anything in particular. 

The power of the default mode stems from its place of origin in the brain—the components of the default network are all within subregions of the brain called association cortices. We have an association cortex for each of our five sensory systems and for each motor region, and we have what are called "higher-order" association areas for complex mental processes not associated with movement or the senses. Neural networks that represent ideas can activate one another, creating associations. The association cortices are where those connections are made.

Associations help to confer meaning on what you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. For example, a brain region called the primary visual cortex detects the basic features of the visual world, such as edges, light and dark, and location. But that is just data. What does the data mean? What persons, places, and things are you looking at, and what is their significance? It is an association cortex that defines the objects you identify.

When you read a sign that says NO TRESPASSING, the printed letters create an image on your retina. That is just a reproduction of the lines that make up the letters. The sign's message achieves meaning only when that information is passed on from the retina to the visual cortex to an association cortex that identifies the sign, and the letters and words written on it. And that's just the beginning. The image is then passed on to other association regions, where connotation, emotional tone, and your personal memories and experience give the words additional meaning. 

Our association neurons are what allow us to think and have ideas, rather than merely react. They are the source of our attitudes, differentiating us from one another and helping to define our identities as individuals. They are also the source of our inventiveness. Our culture tends to view discovery and innovation as materializing out of nothing, the product of the ethereal magic of a gifted intellect. But breakthrough ideas, like mundane ideas, often arise from the association and recombination of what is already lying around in the corners of our minds. 

That brings us back to the default mode. "When your mind is at rest, what it is really doing is bouncing thoughts back and forth," neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen says. "Your association cortices are always running in the background, but when you are not focused on some task—for example, when you are doing something mindless, like driving—that's when your mind is most free to roam. That's why that is when you most actively create new ideas." 

I had the pleasure of spending a few years working with Stephen Hawking. For the past five decades or so, Stephen has lived with ALS, a disease that attacks the neurons controlling the voluntary muscles. Because he has little capacity for movement, Stephen communicates by choosing words from a computer screen through the clicks of a mouse. It's a tedious process. At first the screen displays a cursor moving from letter to letter. Once he has selected a letter, through another click he can either choose from a list of suggested words that begin with that letter or he can repeat the process to choose the second letter of the word he has in mind—and so on, until he has chosen or spelled out the word. 

When we first began collaborating, he accomplished the mouse clicks by employing his thumb. Later, as the disease progressed, his glasses were fitted with a motion sensor so that he could click the mouse by twitching a muscle on his right cheek. If you have ever seen Stephen interviewed on television, the quickness with which he responds to questions is an illusion. He receives the queries long in advance and requires days or weeks to fashion his answers. Then, when the interviewer asks the question, Stephen simply clicks his mouse to initiate the reading of his response. 

When I worked with Stephen, he could compose his sentences at a rate of only about six words a minute. As a result, I would typically have to wait several minutes for even a simple response to something I said. At first I would sit impatiently, daydreaming on and off as I waited for him to finish his composition. But then one day I was looking over his shoulder at his computer screen, where the sentence he was constructing was visible, and I started thinking about his evolving reply. By the time he had completed it, I had had several minutes to ponder the ideas he expressed. 

Photo by David Brahney

That led me to a revelation. In normal conversation, we are expected to reply to each other within seconds, and as a result, our volleys of speech come almost automatically, from a superficial place in our minds. In my conversations with Stephen, the stretching of those seconds to minutes had a hugely beneficial effect. It allowed me to more profoundly consider his remarks, and it enabled my own ideas, and my reactions to his, to percolate as they never can in ordinary conversations. The slowed pace endowed my exchanges with a depth of thought not possible in the rush of normal communication. 

That rush doesn't affect only in-person conversations. We rush to answer texts, pound out emails, and flit from link to link online. Adults today typically access their smartphones for an average of 34 short (30 seconds or less) sessions daily, not to mention longer periods for phone calls or to play games; 58 percent of adults check their phone every hour. 

The result is a dearth of idle time in which the brain is in its default mode. This is bad for our well-being, because idle time allows our default network to make sense of what we've recently experienced or learned. It allows our integrative thinking processes to reconcile diverse ideas without censorship from the executive brain. It allows us to mull over our desires and shuffle through unattained goals

Those internal conversations feed our ongoing first-person narrative and help develop and reinforce our sense of self. They also allow us to connect divergent information to form new associations and to step back from our issues and problems, to reframe them or generate new ideas. That gives our bottom-up elastic thinking networks the opportunity to search for creative, unexpected solutions.

The associative processes of elastic thinking do not thrive when the conscious mind is in a focused state. A relaxed mind explores novel ideas; an occupied mind searches for the most familiar ideas, which are usually the least interesting. Unfortunately, as our default networks are sidelined more and more, we have diminished opportunity to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realizations. If we are to exercise the elastic thinking demanded by our fast-paced times, we have to fight the constant intrusions and find islands of time during which we can unplug. 

In 2015, a group of researchers in France showed that the simple act of exhausting your executive brain before you start pondering a challenging intellectual issue can liberate your elastic brain. The scientists fatigued subjects' executive brains by putting them through a tedious computer exercise that exhausts the prefrontal cortex. After the task had dulled the subjects' executive faculties, the researchers presented them with a test of elastic thinking. The subjects were given a few minutes to imagine as many uses as they could for a set of household objects, like a bucket, a newspaper, and a brick. The researchers found that when a subject's capacity for executive function was depleted, both the total number of imagined uses and their originality were significantly greater. 

The lesson is that, though we expect our best thinking time to be when we are fresh, our elastic thinking capacity may be highest when we feel burned out. That's good to know when scheduling tasks: You could be better at generating imaginative ideas if you do that kind of thinking after working on a chore that involves a period of tedious, focused effort that strains your powers of concentration

Survival of the Most Fluid

Times of rapid change like ours require flexibility and the ability to adapt. We've seen a technological revolution, economic, political, and social upheavals, and a vast enrichment of our intellectual and cultural capital. But we also face unprecedented new dilemmas. We are barraged by a constant stream of information, and thanks to our devices, we are in ceaseless contact with dozens or even thousands of other people, rarely if ever enjoying complete downtime. 

Our brains are information-processors and problem-solving machines, and certainly our analytical skills are crucial to meeting the challenges we face. But even more important is the magic of elastic thinking, which can generate new, often wild ideas. Some will prove useless, while others will culminate in the innovative solutions required for the problems of modern existence. To succeed, we need to hone those adaptive skills.

Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D., is a theoretical physicist and the author of nine books including Subliminal and Elastic.

From the book ELASTIC: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change. Copyright (c) 2018 by Leonard Mlodinow. Published by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

  • Submit your response to this story to letters@psychologytoday.com. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. 
  • Pick up a copy of Psychology Today on newsstands now or subscribe to read the the rest of the latest issue.

Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock