This post is based on the book, Elastic–Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow, Pantheon Books, New York, 2018. Mlodinow is a physicist and worked with Stephen Hawking. His previous book Subliminal evidently gave him considerable access to interesting people like Seth MacFarlane. He mentions that Stephen Hawking’s pace of communicating was at best six words a minute with public presentations being done ahead of time. Mlodinow notes that this slowing of the pace of a conversation is actually quite helpful in forcing you to consider the words as opposed to thinking of what you are going to say while the other person is talking so that you can have an instant response.
Mlodinow points out the accelerating pace of change today and that this increases the value of becoming accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction, being able to reframe problems and rely on imagination, to experiment, and finally to tolerate failure. This is what he calls elastic thinking and he notes that this is bottom up as opposed to analytic thinking which is top down.
Mlodinow notes that some of our behavior is scripted. Ants and bees, the so called social insects are known for scripted behavior. There are only a few divisions of labor each with a different script or short set of rules and yet when applied together can create intelligent responses from unintelligent creatures. We are not bees, but certain things that we do are preprogrammed, automatic, and initiated by a trigger in the environment. He even mentions that we may answer with an automatic “no” to our children’s requests in a scripted fashion. Clearly, scripts do not always work. When they do not, analytical/rational/logical thinking may work. Finally, we can allow elastic thinking to examine the issue.
Elastic thinking proceeds largely in the unconscious and proceeds in a nonlinear and non serial manner. Humans are good at this as, Mlodinow notes, we live in environments built on our own imaginations. He notes that the NIH Connectome Project recently identified 97 new brain regions which points out the differentiation and hierarchy of the mind and its multiple capabilities. Of course, some of us have personality traits that make us more open to elastic thinking. He mentions neophilia which is an affinity for novelty and schizotypy which is a tendency to unusual ideas and magical beliefs. He also notes that the world needs both analytic and elastic thinkers.
Mlodinow believes that humans in general are able to accept change even though some more than others. He dismisses the statements we hear about how hard it is for us to accept change. Usually those statements are made when it really means that we do not embrace unemployment, moving away from our families, poverty, or poor health. Mlodinow notes that a dopamine receptor gene has been found which indicates more novelty seeking –more dopamine needed to provide good feelings. The gene is more prevalent in peoples who migrated a greater distance from Africa.
Based on the Glockner, Betsch, Jekel Parallel Constraint Satisfaction model, this fits in with what I have called the slowness factor (See post Parameter P — Slowness Factor?) as an individual characteristic that impacts decision making. When our dissonance reducing minds start whirring, some of us change the weights of cues more readily than others. Maybe the dopamine receptors are part of this. If the environment is changing relatively more rapidly changing weights more readily may be adaptive.
Regardless, our cognitive styles, our manners of drawing conclusions, are not all analytical or all elastic. Even something like identifying what is a chair can require both and we are good at such jobs. Neurons are the “ants” of the human brain. In the brain, there is a clear hierarchy of neurons. There is an interplay of bottom up and top down neuron activity. Brain imaging has exposed the great amount of activity in the brain while it ostensibly rests. The so called default network shows great activity between the association cortices. These association areas help to confer meaning. Association neurons allow us to think and have ideas rather than merely react.
Mlodinow suggests that current society addicts us to constant activity and this reduces idle time and thus less time when the mind is in the default mode and thus less elastic thinking. In his research, John Kounios saw an analogy between processes involved in understanding the meaning of a sentence and the elastic thinking required to respond to a mental challenge. Sentences are like puzzles, he suggests. The right brain’s role in insight is like its role in language. When we first consider a problem, the executive/left brain makes its ordinary proven tries. If these do not seem to be working, the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) broadens the search by allowing the right brain’s flexible answers to surface. Apparently, the ACC can block out visual inputs to the right brain to promote this.
Mlodinow writes that you may be able to nurture insight by facing problems with a relaxed mind. Mindfulness along with the reduction of time pressure can help bring out elastic thinking. Dissent will help. Diversity of the decision group can definitely promote elastic thinking. Mlodinow goes on to look at the lateral prefrontal cortex which serves as a filter. Poets, painters, insightful scientists, and musicians tend to favor elastic thinking and also have tendency toward eccentric or odd behavior or even hallucinations. He refers to this as schizotypy and more or less means appearing somewhere on the schizophrenic spectrum. A lax cognitive filter promotes high schizotypy and a tendency toward originial thinking and nonconformist behavior, while a a stringent filter produces cognitive inhibition. Fatigue can reduce inhibition and so can a good mood. Negative emotions like fear, sadness and anger elicit response in the autonomic nervous system–elevated heart rate, etc–which means something is wrong and tightens the cognitive filter.