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Festival of Ideas

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change Leonard Miodinow

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Drawing on cutting-edge research, Leonard Mlodinow takes us on an illuminating journey through the mechanics of our minds as we navigate the rapidly changing landscapes around us.

He examines the new demands on how we must think in order to thrive in an era of unprecedented technological innovation and social change.

How can we train our brains to be more comfortable when confronting change and more adept at innovation? How do our brains generate new ideas, and how can we nurture that process? Why can diversity and even discord be beneficial to our thought process? Mlodinow explores the qualities of thought that are becoming essential for our success and happiness and gives us the tools to harness the power of elastic thinking in an endlessly dynamic world.

PHOTO credit: Heather Mlodinow

Audience Member Review

Written by Hugh D Reynolds 

I have reached a stage in life when, out shopping for trousers, labels like Elasticated Waistband have a far more comforting appeal than Slim Fit and Tailored. Does the same appeal hold when being sold ideas and ways to make them?

Leonard Mlodinow has a multi-pack of evidence and approaches to thinking he’s branded: Elastic. He bounced by Waterstones in Bristol this week to stretch the Festival of Ideas audience, with a riddle and reasons to break beyond both scripted and analytic thinking.

Here’s the riddle: ‘Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father – yet they are not twins. How is that possible?’ From his Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World (Allen Lane, 2018)

When faced with a novel problem like this, fixed, off-the-shelf recipes for solution, won’t get you anywhere. Nor – claims Mlodinow – will analytical methods; breaking down the issue and considering its detail. It’s not that we should do away with these other sorts of thinking – so vital in other aspects of life and technology – but that alone, they’re not up to the job of dealing with rapidly changing situations. We should therefore nurture our capacity for elastic thought.

Don’t despair. I’ll give the riddle solution at the end if you promise to read on until then. Promise? If you can’t bear to finish reading me, go buy the book; the answer is on page 98.

‘Like many challenging problems […] riddles are made difficult not by what we don’t know, but by what we do know – or think we know – which turns out to be incorrect.’

There are blocks which, so the elastic metaphor goes, we need to flex around. Yet the more I heard about the cover-all term, Elastic, and the situations to which Mlodinow applies it, the more convinced I became that it is something of a misnomer. The stretching going on here seems – in each case taken up – to have more to do with generating a multitude of ideas from which one is deemed, in retrospect, to have won-out over others that fell by the wayside.

Those cases are wide ranging and deftly-drawn, the book being described by dashing event host Richard Godwin, as ‘A festival of ideas in itself’. This reflects the riddle of Mlodinow’s diverse career. An acclaimed theoretical physicist, disciple of the legendary Richard Feynman, he’s also a highly accomplished author, collaborating with figures as distinct as Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. ‘Scientists’ – scare quotes very much intended for one of this odd-couple (can you guess which?) – don’t come much more distinct.

Add to this Mlodinow’s work as a producer, game-maker and screenwriter. For me and the contrived purposes of this essay, one of his stand out commissions was a 1987 episode of the action-adventure series MacGyver.

Covert agent MacGyver was a one-man A-Team who could get himself out of any scrape by ingenuity, knowledge of science and (oh-so-conveniently) having a handy array of odds and ends at his disposal to create improvised devices, escape peril or fend-off baddies. Thanks to the title sequence, to this day I never leave a key in my lock for fear a map will be pushed, MacGyver-like, under my door, said key forced out from the other side with a Swiss Army Knife, to drop upon the map, the key withdrawn, and thus, access gained… (I believe there has since been a re-boot of the classic series. I sincerely hope younger readers will be writing about it in informal literary blogs thirty years from now.)

Mlodinow’s MacGyver episode (co-written with Scott Rubenstein) – features a contest between physics undergraduates each tasked with building an impenetrable barricade. The story contains some fascinating resonances with Elastic. Both are squashed full of engaging puzzles and insight – and both consider the down-sides of constrained thought. I should stress (and Mlodinow concedes a little): there are up-sides to constraint too. But now is not the time or place… The drama is far more successful than the book at conveying the costs of failed (and successful) thought. What happens to ideas when they interact with the wider world. How what turns out to be a good idea comes about, not in a vacuum, but in a worldly context full of mistakes, losses and nice-tries.

So much, for now, for MacGyver. (Opening titles roll, he slides down a sand dune using the map as a sledge whilst dodging gunshot from a squad of insurgents…) Back in Waterstones, the atmosphere is a little calmer, though the thinking runs wild:

Your brain is an idea machine.’ And whilst you might have all sorts of ideas running through it, you also have an executive function to filter the most extreme of those suggestions. Mlodinow aired a few extremes in his conversation: ‘Let me run naked out of this bookstore… Pour this wine over my head…’ He and Godwin manage to restrain themselves. That executive function turns out to be one of the last to mature; around our early-twenties. Children are the world’s leading elastic thinkers, and in his youth – full of elastic thought – one of Mlodinow’s ideas was that it would be really cool to jump off the school roof. He tried. He survived. Just.

There are times when we need to filter these ideas – suppress the crazy thoughts – and times when we don’t. The tacit assumption in the book is that most of us adults are stiffs who should be relaxing the brakes – and generally, just relaxing – much more often – to enhance the breadth and reach of thinking we can achieve. I don’t buy the sense of urgency that fuels Mlodinow’s marketing campaign: that we’re living in a uniquely changeable time and place and therefore need this elastic thinking more than ever. Certainly, in terms of technological advance and social shifts, I’ll vouch: these days, it’s hard keeping up; but in the book you’ll learn of his own family’s trials surviving Nazi occupied Europe, and something of the quotidian wiliness required for enduring hostile and unsettled times – which are, tragically, timeless. If we are able to nurture our capacity for elastic thinking, it’s surely because of adaptations evolved in earlier unsettled ages – throughout history – which equipped us for such thinking.

Here’s what we should do then. ‘Think when you’re not thinking’; accomplish more by working less; ‘liberate your brain’; recalibrate your expertise: it equips you in one field but can bog you down in others; foster a positive mood; be more Bohemian – artistic in attitude. Find a context where your elastic thinking could be rewarded (e.g. theoretical physics) though best to avoid unrestrained reward situations where ‘anything goes’ (e.g. the ‘golden era’ of improv jazz). Remember ‘The Importance of Being Aimless’. This gets a whole subchapter, but – oddly – no credit is given to Bertrand Russell, who in 1932 wrote an essay, In Praise of Idleness, proposing a four hour working day (beyond which we might choose to work for curiosity’s sake). Perhaps there is an uncomfortable paradox here given Russell’s role in founding the style of philosophy we squares relish: the analytic. Achieving balance in the types of thought and activity with which we fill our days should be a key concern for all would-be bendy thinkers.

Here are a few more of Mlodinow’s proposals: become a neophiliac (ever the magpie, he’s always embracing the brand and spanking while the rest of us are streaming cheesy 80’s US action-adventure shows… Or is that just me?); drop those adult inhibitions and watch cartoons for a while (Family Guy is a favourite; returning the courtesy, its creator Seth MacFarlane says reading Elastic will make you smarter; if you already have enough good ideas, he’s wrong – being smart isn’t all about having ideas – for reasons I labour below); recognise mild ‘disorders’ of mind can sometimes – for some purposes – be beneficial; consider weakening your cognitive filters. Why not ‘Cocktail’ your way to a cognitive coup? According to our host Richard’s The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing, (Random House, 2015), ‘To Cocktail’ is indeed a verb (coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1928). But there is a but: beware the side-effects. Mlodinow explains the lows and highs.

These headlines don’t convey the elegant thread of neuroscience he employs to make the subjects cohere. Illustrating for example, the reward mechanisms that make our endless compulsion to check a phone akin to a chemical addiction. It’s on the science of the brain – its hierarchy and internal life – that Mlodinow’s book works best. As you might expect, with such clean-cut-stiff role-models like MacGyver (‘You know me, Carrot Juice is about as heavy as I get.’) I’ve not trialled Godwin’s book, but I imagine a Zombie, which, ‘if you follow Don the Beachcomber’s 1956 recipe contains a phenomenal amount of rum…’, will elasticate you well enough.

Faced with messy challenges in our own lives, organisations and societies, how much elastic thinking should we apply? A response like: use just as much as is required to solve it, doesn’t wash, because it’s only much later on that we understand whether the measures we’re taking are working out or not. Solutions involve interaction with the world which is often costly.

If you’ve a few hours to kill and a brainteaser to solve, the investment cost in thinking up several new solution approaches is minimal. Likewise, if you’re a tech-giant with a huge R&D budget and can develop or buy up lots of patents that may never be used, all this making like a bungee cord may be a bearable expense. Now, what if I’m an Uber driver (having embraced a heterodoxy that has become orthodox) worried about my long-term career options? Or a new business, fresh, eager and flexing, but unsure which way to curve? Or the government of a resource poor nation choosing between different models of public healthcare (loads to choose from; none of them cheap). There are always far more ways to bend and break than there are to branch-out and blossom.

Mlodinow’s Elastic speaks to me less of an entity that stretches to fit something broader than before – but of a mechanism predicated on growth, proliferation and filtration: a numbers game.

Within the purely cognitive arena, there is a way the elastic analogy can be said to hold. The mind – in generating a heap of ideas, settles on one that works – say as a solution to that riddle – so can be seen to have grown to accommodate some new thing. We then, conveniently, forget about the other ideas, dead-ends and duds that missed the target – though, truly, without their mass – this mechanism would be as nothing. There’s no direct route through to the successful result being posited here. The term is loaded – and Mlodinow doesn’t deploy it – but there’s a statistical flavour to what’s being described here.

Though we might end up with an elastic idea – one that seems to have stretched-to-fit the situation – there was actually a field full of ideas that went into getting us there. There was a diversity generated – a rich field of ideas out of which something is selected or wins-out over others. Like all those many pairs of trousers that I haul into the changing room and try-on in increasing desperation, before emerging, much later, with one pair that I can bear to buy.  This fails to match the elastic moniker – or at the very least fails to acknowledge all the resource that goes into generating the eventual result – the scaffold needed to build the finished result.

Quoting Linus Pauling ‘The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw out the bad ones.’ He should know. The Nobel committee awarded Pauling not one, but two gongs (one for chemistry, one for peace). Yet note well that as well as proliferation, expansion and excess – there is waste, decay and rejection. As Mlodinow says himself: ‘It’s a process full of blind alleys and dead ends.

Mlodinow’s book is about getting ideas – not about knowing how to make the cut and chuck out the bad ones. Maybe that will be the topic of his sequel. Maybe that’s the more difficult bit.

A common trope of scientists is to classify problems according to the way they are typically solved – just as Mlodinow did in the opening part of his conversation. Divvying-up fixed and analytic thinking from all things elastic is itself an analytic – inelastic – technique. Yet out in that ‘constantly changing world’ Mlodinow wants to prepare us for, problems are rarely stable, simple and well defined. We don’t know at the outset what tools we’re going to need for the job. Alas, life isn’t an episode of MacGyver, where the components we need have been planted by the screenwriter all around us – and we’ve had just the sort of training required to deal with the fix in which we find ourselves.

We need to apply thought and learn through experiment and failure. All this takes time and only a tiny fraction of it can be done alone on the inside of our own heads. Where possible, it’s great to share our thinking – to stretch ideas between ourselves.

Whether and however they’re resolved, there are tensions between our goals and our capacity to achieve them. When healthy, these drive creativity – but they can also have a destructive force.

Again, MacGyver is most instructive on this issue. The physics professor’s son is desperate to win the competition and impress his father. The pressure has got to him. He becomes obsessed. Depressed. Turns to drugs. But the professor won’t listen: ‘Pressure, MacGyver, is what turns coal into diamonds.’ Can Elastic help us deal with these sorts of pressure too?

Elastic touches on many modish themes you’ll find in hundreds of tomes stacked up against Mlodinow’s on the Self-Help shelves in Waterstones – techniques you’ll need to free your mind such as meditation, mindfulness, and methods drawn from positive psychology. Thankfully it has none of the woolly padding that can so often obscure the usefulness of these practices. It cuts to the chase, explaining how and why they could be beneficial.

There is too high a preponderance of personality tests though (i.e. at least two). Do you like to seek-out new things and experiences? Leonard does. He scored 37 on that one and the scale only runs to 40. Remember how he once jumped off that school roof? If all that is your bag, Mlodinow’s book is a sound investment. As he told us: ‘A good idea can look bad at first – but on further thinking it’s OK’. As I’d add, with gusto: the reverse is true too. Fun Facebook quiz anyone? Personally, I’d rather hurl myself off the nearest school building than rate another statement on a scale of 1 to 5.

Far more impressive (if we’re to understand them as regular habits – and not just gimmicks tried when one is writing a book on such matters) – are exercises Mlodinow undertook challenging his own deeply held convictions. One life-hack is to write these convictions down on scraps of paper, draw one at random from a hat and talk himself into (or, at least countenance) the opposite perspective for a while. Another wise sage, Howard Jones, endorsed spookily similar objectives back in 1983: ‘Don’t crack up, Bend your brain, See both sides, Throw off your mental chains…’ As demonstrated on stage with mime artist Jed Hoile. (I’m not sure about mental chains though: they seem to be of the plastic sort you’d buy from ‘Do It All’ to guard a small rockery or garden pond…)

Mlodinow is obviously keen to thaw his own frozen thoughts, a term he adapts from Hannah Arendt, flagging her famous studies of Adolf Eichmann and the horrific impact of those who fail to think critically about their actions and inactions. Arendt actually went much further than this elastic limit though. See for example her immensely fertile 1971 essay Thinking and Moral Considerations where she draws a more nuanced picture of what it is to stop and think; what it means to be ‘frozen’ – harking back to Socrates’ simile of the stingray, freezing its victim: what looks from the outside like paralysis is ‘felt as the highest state of being alive.

So Mlodinow is that rare beast amongst a clever herd: one that realizes his very cleverness can hold him back. For this I salute him. The cleverest people are the least likely to change their mind on anything, because they are the best equipped to find – relentlessly – reason to justify their initial positions – on everything.

It’s in that spirit of diverse perspective taking (‘Never talk to strangers? We should always talk to strangers. I do it all the time!’) that I offer my own challenge to him: let’s acknowledge the elastic thinking that doesn’t win-out and the elastic thinkers that don’t make it passed the finish line. For we are but flimsy vessels floating on tides of effort.

Mlodinow’s MacGyver story explains this fairly well, in its own terms. It gets to grips with a gripe I have with Elastic: failure. Back on campus: the troubled son fails to win the physics competition outright. He locks himself in the lab with a homemade time-bomb and threatens to explode it, himself, his father, MacGyver, and a load of plutonium in the lab above. Now MacGyver (obviously! We can’t fail too far on teatime TV, come now…) manages to diffuse the situation, but only on the fifth exhilarating attempt – after using increasing resourceful scientific means, in four separate cunning trials, he eventually hot-wires cables from the lift to boil-off mercury in the tilt-switch which would otherwise trigger the explosion. ‘You always used to tell me professor: there’s no problem without a solution.’ I very much doubt the veracity of this statement outside TV drama – but I am sure it’s wise to believe it when you’ve only four minutes to try five ad hoc ways of diffusing a homemade bomb.

When your life hasn’t been scripted by a physics professor there are some key differences to bear in mind. Problems you’ll encounter aren’t puzzles with pre-determined outcomes. There’s unlikely to be one unique solution. There may not be a solution – the question – or the entire framework in which it is set – may need to be redefined before it can be answered. In Elastic, Mlodinow calls on the illustrious support of Thomas Kuhn – recognising the group-elasticity required in so-called paradigm shifts, but not highlighting the individual-puzzler mentality as an outmoded and somewhat inelastic way to think about how science and other joint-enterprises proceed. In short: in the last century, science came in for some flak for setting out to solve problems in prescribed ways which prejudged outcomes. In your contacts, you may not have a MacGyver to call upon – but we do have each other. Sharing what we’re up to – what worked and what didn’t and why – is a boon. Maybe there’s far too much emphasis on self in Self-Help guides?

Why is it important that failure is acknowledged? Success is only a small percentage of the full story of thought and its impact on us. Once ideas seep out into the environment beyond the brain – the terms of the success – who benefits – and who pays – really matters.

Mlodinow is evidently concerned with issues in this ballpark. In confronting his metaphor and its reach – I’ve nothing but admiration for the humanity of the man. For example, he mentions the problematic ethics around the operation of organisations, like Intellectual Ventures, which trade, bank and licence ideas. Those ideas have the potential to do immense good in the world, but there are factors which limit their immediate impact and imbalance control over their implementation. What good is a great idea doing if locked up until the right price can be made from it? What good idealism without the business innovators and actors who can realise the idea’s benefits?

Unlike mere thoughts, which, if had alone, can perish without trace, legacy, moral, social or other indebtedness – once we start trying out ideas in the real world (with things, resources, people…) the testing phases starts to matter. Looking only at successful stories – whilst it helps preserve Elastic’s central metaphor in which a notion is bent to reach a goal – forgets a part of the bigger picture which is impacting on our world – the other ways of doing something that were being tried out – didn’t work – but were none the less creative.

Solutions that are found are frequently found collaboratively – yet reading the blurb of some less sympathetic Self-Help text I get the impression it’s all my fault. If I don’t ‘flex’, I’m the stick in the mud, the world is going to change around me and make me the hopeless failure unless I get my act together. But it ain’t necessarily so bleak; nor so lonely. Not if we make like an ant colony.

There’s a great passage in Mlodinow’s book where he summarises the tremendous achievement of social insects (though as he cannily notes ‘the term social insect is in a way a misnomer, for these animals don’t care one bit about their cohorts’). ‘As individuals, their mode of information processing is scripted and rigid, but as a group it is elastic.’ It may appear there is some central control operating here, but that is not quite the case. There is bottom-up, rules-based behaviour at the individual level. Ants exchange information (food, chemical pheromones etc..) with their peers, sense the frequency of transfer, and respond in rigidly scripted ways. Out of this, agile responses at the colony level emerge. When exploring terrain to find food, after initial forays along different search paths – ant-highways towards a rich food-source will grow wide, thick with workers, whilst less fruitful roads less travelled peter out.

The elastic metaphor works really well for an ant colony as it adapts to accommodate a new food source. Crucially, although many paths are lost in the finding process, the ants carry each other along. Those that happened to take a failed path initially, can be reabsorbed by the colony and join the ranks scurrying along the successful highway.

I second Mlodinow when he urges us not to draw too close an analogy between the natural world and our own hierarchical, top-down (and, ahem: top-heavy) organisational structures. But you’ve got to give it to the ants haven’t you? Would that we could distribute the tasks of discovery in such an efficient way; that we shared the benefit and risks so well. Spreading the harvest of heterodox thinking in a shared hive-mind – rather than the mass being at the mercy of whoever got there first (getting the chance to milk the rest still being one of the key spoils of victory amongst our industrious/verminous (delete as applicable) breed).

For each tech start-up success story told in a book like Mlodinow’s listen out for a silence. The flexing of the dead. All the inventors, social entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, family businesses, SMEs and charities that didn’t make it. Many flexed. They had ideas aplenty. Maybe they chose wrong. Maybe – with a bit more time or different resource – they’d have got there – but – out on their own – just one in a heap of ideas to be tried, they didn’t get there. Flexing is necessary for survival, but it’s not sufficient.

Bare ideas don’t have feelings. Who cares if ideas get sluiced down the drain? But when you put a human price on those ideas – begin to turn them into a project, invest – yourself and others in them – that’s when they start to matter. That’s when the metaphor of elasticity starts to grate. Interfaced with the world beyond our brains, these games of thought have many players. The losses are so great for so many they turn out not to be games at all. To tell the full story of our times these need to be accounted for. And learned from. And valued.

Elastic thinking only works if we band together; stretch the metaphor too far and…

 It snaps.

[The riddle solution: Marsha and Marjorie aren’t twins; they belong to a set of triplets.]

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