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How To Make Your Brain Adaptive Enough To Cope With Anything

Certain cognitive styles can help us better navigate the modern world. So argues Leonard Mlodinow, physicist-turned-author whose career is the embodiment of the so-called elastic thinking he espouses.

What Do You Mean By "Elastic" Thinking

You can put human thinking on a spectrum. At one end is rule-based logical and analytical thinking. Like a traditional computer, there are rules. You put data in and get answers out.

At the other end of the spectrum is what I call elastic thinking. It follows no rules, but instead sets up the framework through which we attack problems and analyse situations. Most of the innovations of the world, whether in business or science or art, come from elastic thinking. Elastic thinking requires the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas, become accustomed to ambiguity and rely on imagination as much as on logic to generate ideas.

Why Do we Need A Different Kind of Thinking?

Today things are changing faster than ever with new technologies. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with circumstances and issues that wouldn't have confronted us a decade or two ago. You have to constantly reinvent yourself.

Where did your concept of elastic thinking come from?

I got interested in the mind through the wonders of neuroscience, much of which is based on physics -- for example, the science of how neurons transmit electrical signals, and the technology behind brain imaging. That led me to write the book Subliminal, on the neuroscience and psychology of the unconscious.

My book Elastic is a kind of sequel to that. I realised that although the human mind is excellent at adapting to change, the ever-increasing pace of change over the past few decades has reached a point where it is challenging our capabilities. So I decided to look into how we adapt to change and how we can nurture the ability to cope with the modern world.

Can we improve our ability to think flexibly?

Yes. One of the ways is to be aware of the framework with which you attack a problem. The questions you ask influence the answers that you get. In my book I emphasise the cases where you won't find any answer because you are asking the wrong question.

Here is an example -- a riddle taken from a 2015 paper in The Journal of Problem Solving which investigated the origins of insight: Marjorie and Marsha were born on the same day, same year, same month, same parents but they're not twins. How is that possible?

Because of the way I phrased the question, you picture just two girls, but that's a limiting framework. Once you realise that there could have been three girls or four girls born then you realise, oh, maybe they are triplets or quadruplets. But your framework is that there were just two of them.

How else can we free up our minds?

One of the things that encourages elastic thinking is constantly facing new situations, new people, different things. I talk about how to bring more of that into your life.

Also, we try to forget all the times that we are wrong. I say, no, dwell on them. The more you realise that you can be wrong, the more you realise you might be wrong now...and so you will think differently. You want to keep yourself from comfortably and arrogantly moving along a path that you ‘know' is right.

You talk about the importance of the mind not being focused for elastic thinking to come to the fore. How does that work?

Analytical thinking takes concentration. You are following the rules and the conscious part of your brain is directing where you go. For elastic thinking it has got to be looser. A part of that is a process [that psychologists call] incubation, in which your mind, at an unconscious level, is percolating and generating ideas, which may then pop into your consciousness. For you to be aware of these ideas and associations, however, you need to relax the filters that keep them out.

You think that mental fatigue can help this process?

Fatigue lowers your cognitive filters and allows new ideas to come through. Studies show that people who are fatigued, when their prefrontal cortex isn't operating at full capacity, are better at solving problems that require elastic thinking, such as the Marsha/Marjorie riddle I talked about earlier.

Sometimes, when you are really fatigued and stop focusing, then new ideas come to your mind. I've been working on a physics problem, doing the math to get from A to B in some long, tedious calculation, then I put the pen down because I've been working too long. I walk into the other room and suddenly, bam, I get an idea that in some way circumvents that approach and I can solve it in 5 minutes. Once I get tired out, I come up with a better idea.

What Things Can We Do To Make Our Brains More Flexible?

In the book I give some exercises. One is to talk to people who are very much unlike you. The tendency is to dismiss people who think differently but such people can help broaden your thinking. Another thing I recommend is to pick something you believe and try to listen to the other side. Instead of trying to refute those arguments, which is natural, pretend that you are a lawyer and you are trying to make that case.

Also useful for elastic thinking is what Buddhists call the beginner's mind.

What Is The Beginner's Mind?

It is a state of mind in which you face events and situations as if you have no past experience and no bias.

You know, it's good to be an expert on something, but sometimes it gets in the way of your perception. One example, from research with chess players, shows how expert players can see one solution to a problem that blinds them from seeing other solutions that are better. In such situations, beginners are able to find a better solution because they aren't blinded by their knowledge.

But it isn't so easy. You can't just say I'm going to pretend I don't know these things when you know them. You have to nurture this.

Is this why you recommend mindfulness as a way to unleash a flexible mindset?

In order to really apply elastic thinking, it takes a certain degree of self-knowledge. You need to know what your assumptions are, and to understand the framework that is restraining your thinking. Also, to know at what point you need to apply analytical thinking, and when you need to percolate on something.

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