Self Help

Elastic Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change - Leonard Mlodinow

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Matheus Puppe

· 40 min read

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Here is a summary of the “Also by Leonard Mlodinow” section:

  • The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos
  • Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior
  • War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra)
  • The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking)
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
  • A Briefer History of Time (with Stephen Hawking)
  • Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life
  • Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace
  • Children’s books:
    • The Last Dinosaur
    • Titanic Cat

It lists the author Leonard Mlodinow’s other books, including both non-fiction and children’s books on a variety of topics like physics, neuroscience, randomness, and geometry. The section provides context about Mlodinow’s background and areas of writing expertise.

  • The challenges of modern life due to rapidly changing technology require new ways of thinking and adapting to constant change and uncertainty.

  • This book discusses “elastic thinking” - a cognitive style that allows people to solve novel problems, look beyond established ways of thinking, and adapt to changing contexts.

  • Elastic thinking arises from “bottom-up” brain processes rather than top-down analytical reasoning. It draws on imagination and creativity in addition to logic.

  • While analytical thinking and scripted behaviors are useful in routine situations, they are limited for novelty and change. Elastic thinking is better suited to ambiguity.

  • The book will examine recent scientific research on elastic thinking and strategies for developing this important cognitive skill for thriving in today’s world of constant transformation and uncertainty.

So in summary, it introduces the concept of “elastic thinking” as a cognitive style needed to adapt to modern life, discusses how it differs from other thought processes, and previews exploring its neurological basis and strategies to enhance it.

  • Elastic thinking evolved in humans hundreds of thousands of years ago as a way to solve problems and overcome challenges in unpredictable, changing environments. It allowed for social cooperation and innovation.

  • Today, while modern societies are more protected, the pace of change is unprecedented. Our environment is built entirely on imagination - we have invented new modes of transportation, tools, devices, etc. to solve problems and enhance life.

  • Elastic thinking is no longer just a tool for specialists like inventors and scientists. It is now an important skill for everyone to thrive in a world where adapting to change is crucial.

  • Neuroscientists are studying the brain mechanisms underlying elastic thinking. Recent research shows the brain has more specialized substructures than previously believed, like the prefrontal cortex which consists of many distinct elements.

  • Psychological factors like neophilia (affinity for novelty), imagination, idea generation, and integrative thinking play a role in elastic thinking. Understanding these bottom-up thought processes can help cultivate the ability to adapt.

  • In the decade between 2004-2014, publishers had to create over 5,000 new scientific journals to accommodate the growing amount of new research being published. Major industries also now rely on vast amounts of specialized expertise across many topics that no single person could master.

  • The growth of websites and social media has been even more drastic, with the number of websites doubling every 2-3 years. Social attitudes are also changing rapidly, as seen in the swift advancement of civil rights and gay rights issues compared to past movements.

  • Adopting new technologies and change used to proceed slowly, as people clung to old habits. It took decades for most people to switch from dial phones to touchtone phones. However, new technologies are now adopted much more quickly, as seen when the iPhone replaced keypad/stylus phones within just a few years.

  • The pace of change has accelerated dramatically in recent decades due to advances like the internet, smartphones, and social media. People are now more open to and eager for novelty compared to the past. While change once posed risks, today changing habits and embracing new technologies is often necessary to thrive socially and professionally.

  • Around 135,000 years ago, human population was decimated by environmental changes, dropping to just 600 individuals.

  • This acted as a genetic filter, culling less adventurous individuals and allowing those with a tendency to explore to survive.

  • Within a few thousand years, descendants of survivors had spread from Africa to Europe, Asia, and by 50,000 years ago all over Europe, and by 12,000 years ago globally - much more rapidly than Neanderthals spread.

  • This suggests an evolution in human character toward more exploration and risk-taking.

  • The DRD4 gene affects dopamine response in the brain’s reward system and comes in variants like DRD4-7R linked to high novelty seeking.

  • Populations further from Africa have higher rates of DRD4-7R, supporting the role of this gene in driving human migration and exploration.

  • While just one factor, genetics contribute to a personality spectrum from risk-averse to sensation-seeking pioneers, with overall group survival benefiting from pioneers exploring new resources and ideas.

  • In modern society, this same drive manifests in personal exploration through activities, socializing, hobbies, career changes, business ventures, and relationships.

  • Thought involves processing sensory information and using it to interpret situations and choose appropriate actions, which helps animals solve problems of survival and reproduction.

  • Different levels of information processing have evolved to handle different types of problems: scripted processing for simple routine problems, analytical processing for more complex challenges, and elastic processing for even more complex/novel situations.

  • While even simple organisms like slime mold process information to solve problems, the question is raised whether this counts as “thinking.” No definitive answer is given, but higher-level processing like that of animals with brains is generally considered a form of thinking.

  • Neuroscientists study how thinking is produced by the brain through activities like perception, reasoning, decision-making, memory, and problem-solving. These mental functions occur independently of specific content and allow for creative/original thought.

  • Pioneering neurologist Thomas Willis contributed greatly to understanding the connection between brain structure/damage and behavior through his autopsies and studies of the human brain in the 17th century.

  • Solving a problem can potentially qualify as thinking, depending on how it’s done. The key aspects of thinking according to definitions are evaluating circumstances, generating ideas or responses, and those responses not simply being automatic or pre-programmed.

  • Many behaviors in animals and even humans are done on “autopilot” without real thought or evaluation. We draw an arbitrary line on what qualifies as thinking.

  • Research shows humans often behave in predictable, scripted ways in familiar social situations without real consideration of specifics. We follow mental habits and shortcuts.

  • Mindfulness is about becoming aware of when we are operating on autopilot vs consciously thinking. It allows us to interrupt unhelpful scripts. Simple mindfulness exercises like body scans, thinking awareness, and mindful eating can be practiced to cultivate this awareness over time. This helps improve flexible thinking over mindless reactions.

So in summary, solving a problem could be thinking, but much of our everyday behavior, including in problem-solving, operates without real conscious thought according to pre-programmed habits and scripts. Mindfulness aims to increase awareness of this to allow for more flexible, conscious thinking.

  • Initially, early AI researchers believed that by getting experts together, they could develop a computer with human-level intelligence through logical reasoning and symbol manipulation. This was based on viewing the brain as analogous to computers.

  • The most influential early program was called the General Problem Solver, which aimed to be a “general problem solver” through rules and symbol manipulation. However, it struggled with real-world problems that require understanding context and ambiguity.

  • Later work also failed to develop computers that can perform elastic thinking - generating novel ideas and solutions. While computers excel at specific, well-defined tasks, flexible, creative thought remains elusive. Even today’s most advanced AI systems are like “really smart calculators” - able to solve particular problems but requiring extensive human input and setup. The gap between analytical and elastic thinking has not been bridged.

  • The passage discusses the differences between human and computer thinking, specifically elastic versus linear thinking. Elastic thinking involves non-algorithmic, bottom-up processing that allows for novel insights and solutions.

  • Computers tend to operate in a linear, top-down fashion according to explicit algorithms and rules programmed by humans. While impressive, even large neural networks do not match the complexity and capabilities of the human brain.

  • The human brain employs both top-down and bottom-up processing, allowing for both logical, step-by-step thinking as well as unexpected insights. Examples are given of creative achievements that did not result from linear problem-solving.

  • A key ability is our brain’s ability to recognize patterns even when presented with variations, like identifying chairs of various shapes, sizes, and designs. This type of complex recognition is very difficult for computers.

  • In summary, the passage argues that elastic, non-sequential thinking is a unique strength of the human brain that has not been matched by modern computer technology and algorithms. This type of thinking underlies human creativity and flexibility in problem-solving.

  • The passage describes the case of a patient, referred to as Patient EVR, who underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor.

  • After the surgery, EVR experienced severe difficulties in making even simple decisions. He would spend hours deliberating over trivial choices like where to eat or what documents to file first.

  • Tests found EVR had normal intelligence, personality, social skills, and ethical reasoning abilities. However, doctors were unable to identify the cause of his decision-making problems.

  • It is believed EVR’s surgery damaged the part of his brain involved in the reward system. Without experiencing pleasure and motivation from decision outcomes, he lost the ability to finalize choices.

  • The case provides insight into what a person would be like without a functioning reward system to guide thinking and decision making. EVR shows how critical the reward system is for performing even basic tasks that require thought and choice.

  • Researchers conducted experiments on a man named EVR who had undergone brain surgery that removed part of his frontal lobe called the orbitofrontal cortex. This structure is part of the brain’s reward system.

  • Without the orbitofrontal cortex, EVR lacked the ability to experience pleasure and had no motivation to make decisions or form goals. He struggled with everyday choices like deciding where to eat.

  • EVR could answer factual questions correctly, but had difficulty with open-ended real-world decisions that required generating preferences and criteria for choice.

  • His lack of emotion-based reward system meant he could not engage elastic thinking needed to confront unfamiliar problems and develop alternative solutions.

  • The experiments showed emotions like pleasure are integral to effective decision-making, and without them one cannot adapt to a changing environment or maintain a productive life.

  • The article draws a parallel between EVR’s condition and the potential effects of too many choices overwhelming modern individuals and depleting mental resources through excessive decision-making.

Experiments with rats in the 1950s showed they would obsessively and continuously press a lever that stimulated a reward center in their brain. This led to neglect of other activities like eating and drinking. The rats were unable to stop due to the constant reward feedback without any diminishing satiation.

Similarly in humans, activities like problem solving and creative/artistic pursuits stimulate the brain’s reward system to encourage those behaviors. As progress is made on a problem or idea, subtle positive feelings encourage further thinking. However, monetizing creative output can disrupt this process by creating an “extrinsic reward” and shifting the motivation to “the wrong reasons.” Artists may experience “writer’s block” when trying to be creative just for money rather than intrinsic enjoyment. In general, intrinsically rewarding behaviors through feedback better leads to innovation than controlling behavior with extrinsic rewards alone. Original thinking requires idea generation which our brain has evolved to find pleasurable.

  • Evolutionary psychologists hypothesized that artistic talent could signal reproductive fitness in humans, similar to how creative displays attract mates in other animals.

  • Haselton and Miller tested this by describing men differing in wealth vs creativity to women. They found that women were significantly more attracted to the creative but poor man when their fertility was high, supporting the idea that creativity indicates genes that could aid survival.

  • Psychologist Bonnie Cramond noticed similarities between traits of gifted children and those with ADHD. She found significant overlap between the two groups in tests, challenging the view of ADHD as a disorder.

  • Research has since found that ADHD is linked to differences in dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward system, weakening its ability to provide motivation. This can cause issues with routine tasks but also hyperfocus on interesting ones.

  • The elastic, divergent thinking associated with ADHD may have evolved as an adaptation to unpredictability faced by hunter-gatherer ancestors. Studies found the ADHD gene variant was more prevalent in nomadic tribes still facing unpredictability.

  • While ADHD is often outgrown, people vary in their tendencies to explore novelty vs exploit routines. This was captured in theories of “adaptors” who prefer refinement vs “innovators” with more flexible thinking styles.

  • Individuals have different cognitive styles based on a spectrum from rule-following to rule-breaking proposed by Michael Kirton.

  • Companies benefit from having a balance of both types of thinkers, as too much of one can cause problems.

  • In personal relationships as well, pairing an individual on one end of the spectrum with someone on the opposite end can balance each other out and create a strong relationship by embracing their differences. This avoids the drawbacks of having two people with similar cognitive styles.

The key points are that different cognitive styles are balanced in effective teams and relationships, and diversity leads to better outcomes than having all similar thinkers by leveraging each person’s strengths.

Here is a summary of the key points in a more powerful and meaningful way:

Brains create order from chaos by finding patterns in the world. Sensory inputs like a ringing doorbell are just physical vibrations, but the human brain extracts deeper meaning by forming conceptual representations. We perceive the doorbell as a sound, but also associate it with interruptions, social connections and emotions - triggering a cascade of related ideas.

This ability to group diverse elements into unified concepts and hierarchies is a defining trait of mammalian intelligence. When spotting one’s grandmother unexpectedly, the visual data is quickly transmitted to the brain’s processing centers. But recognizing her identity takes longer, as higher-level computations link the current input to the stored “Grandma” concept.

This concept does not consist of just a single image, but a collection of features - visual, contextual and personality-based - that represent her holistically. Remarkably, the same neural network activates whether one sees, hears or thinks of their grandmother, showing how brains form rich internal models that transcend mere sensory inputs. By finding meaningful patterns like concepts, human and animal brains impose symbolic order on a complex, unpredictable world.

  • Scientists now believe humans have networks of “concept cells” or “concept neurons” in our brains that represent different people, places, things, and ideas. Each concept is represented by a network of about a million neurons.

  • Early experiments found individual neurons in human brains that responded specifically to images of famous people or landmarks. This provided evidence that concept cells exist.

  • These concept networks are the building blocks of our thought processes. When activated, they can spread activation to associated networks, allowing us to make connections between concepts.

  • The passage then discusses how ant colonies exhibit a type of “emergent” collective intelligence through simple individual behaviors and interactions. Though each ant is mindless, their behaviors together allow the colony to solve problems and adapt intelligently as a group without centralized control.

  • Ant colonies are able to accomplish complex tasks like organizing large-scale hunts through this distributed, bottom-up information processing rather than top-down control by any executive ants. Their system is completely different than human social structures.

So in summary, the passage compares the distributed networks of concept cells that underlie human thinking to the emergent intelligence of ant colonies that arises from simple individual ant behaviors and interactions, without centralized control.

Here are the key points about the brain’s hierarchy and bottom-up processing:

  • The human brain has a hierarchical organization with specialized regions and structures nested within larger structures. This contrasts with ant colonies which have simple bottom-up organization.

  • Bottom-up processing in the brain emerges from interactions between neurons following simple rules, without top-down direction. This allows for flexible, emergent behavior of the brain as a whole.

  • The prefrontal cortex gives humans top-down executive control over thought and behavior, allowing us to rise above automatic responses.

  • A balance of bottom-up and top-down processing allows the human mind to focus thinking purposefully but also generate new, unplanned ideas through elastic thinking.

  • Nathan Myhrvold structured Intellectual Ventures like the human brain, with bottom-up governance and minimal direction, allowing novel ideas to emerge from interconnected researchers. This led to innovative projects applying unexpected combinations of ideas.

In summary, the brain and some organizations can benefit from a balance of bottom-up and top-down processing, generating both purposeful and creative/flexible outcomes. Ant colonies rely solely on bottom-up processes without higher-level control.

  • David Wallerstein had an insight that people may want more popcorn but not want to look gluttonous by buying a second bag.

  • He introduced a larger “jumbo” bag size at theaters. This led to significantly increased popcorn and soda sales.

  • He demonstrated that people will indulge in large portions if large servings are normalized and presented as a standard option.

  • However, the food industry was slow to adopt this idea as it challenged existing paradigms about portion sizes and branding. They saw large sizes as discounting.

  • Wallerstein’s idea represented a “paradigm shift” in how the industry thought about portion sizes and consumption, but many resisted changing their view.

  • McDonald’s finally adopted larger sizes in 1990, decades after Wallerstein’s initial insight, showing how difficult it can be for industries to accept new frameworks of thinking.

So in summary, Wallerstein uncovered a key insight about consumption behavior, but it took a long time for the paradigm in the food industry to truly shift to accept larger portion sizes as the new normal.

  • The passage discusses the importance of being able to reframe or restructure one’s thinking in order to solve problems and adapt to changing circumstances. This involves questioning assumptions and considering alternative perspectives that contradict existing beliefs or paradigms.

  • Examples are given of businesses like Apple and Nike that have reimagined their models to stay ahead of competition as industries evolve rapidly. Apple avoids manufacturing costs by outsourcing production, while Nike experiments with 3D printing for customization.

  • Riddles are also used to illustrate how preconceptions can hinder problem-solving, as the interpretations they automatically evoke are incorrect. Solving the riddles requires abandoning initial frameworks of thought.

  • The ability to restructure thinking is crucial for survival in today’s rapidly changing environment where disruptive change demands new ways of viewing issues. This is illustrated through the “dog-and-bone problem” where a dog must reframe its goal from physical distance to overcoming obstacles between itself and the bone.

So in summary, the key point is that mental flexibility to reframe problems is important for success in both intellectual pursuits and navigating changing business and social conditions. Questioning assumptions allows for innovative solutions.

  • The passage discusses how framing or restructuring problems in new ways is essential to creative and effective problem-solving. This is illustrated through examples like the dog and bone problem.

  • Mathematicians are especially adept at restructuring problems, as seen in examples like the mutilated checkerboard domino covering problem. By viewing it in terms of laws governing domino placement rather than discrete attempts to cover the board, the solution becomes clear.

  • Another example is how Rafael Bombelli realized imaginary numbers could provide a useful framework even if they don’t correspond to physical quantities, leading to their acceptance.

  • Cultural norms and paradigms strongly influence one’s frameworks of thought. Kitayama’s experiments showed how Japanese and Europeans differed in perceiving geometric relationships due to differing cultural emphases on independence vs context/relation.

  • Cultural differences likely affect levels of innovation across societies since culture shapes underlying thought processes and problem-solving approaches. Rankings of countries’ innovation have remained relatively stable over time.

  • The study compared the number of inventions patented per capita over 1971-1980 in the US and 13 similar European countries.

  • Most countries retained the same rank over the entire decade, showing the results were stable over time and not a fluke.

  • Similar results were seen in another study of a subclass of inventions from 1995-2005, with similar country rankings despite a different time period and category of inventions studied.

  • This suggests countries tend to maintain their relative innovation performance levels over long periods of time compared to similar wealth peers. The country rankings for inventions patented per capita were quite stable within the studies.

  • Hans Berger was a German psychiatrist and neurologist in the early 20th century who invented the electroencephalogram (EEG), a tool for measuring electrical activity in the brain.

  • He became interested in mental telepathy after a near-death experience made him wonder if thoughts could be transmitted between people. His early research on this was considered unscientific at the time.

  • Berger had the innovative idea to measure blood flow in the brain as a proxy for energy and metabolism, anticipating the principles of modern brain imaging technology like fMRI.

  • Through working with patients who had skull defects, he was able to insert devices to directly measure brain activity and swelling during mental tasks. This early work had technical problems and weak results.

  • A breakthrough came when Berger attached electrodes to the scalp rather than inserting them inside the brain, allowing non-invasive measurements and many more volunteers. He called his device the EEG.

  • With the EEG, Berger discovered that the brain is electrically active even during inactive states like daydreaming, contradicting prevailing views. However, his findings were initially dismissed.

  • Though the EEG transformed neuroscience, Berger’s career was hindered by his ideas being ahead of their time and eventually ended when he was fired by the Nazis in 1938. He took his own life in 1941, despondent that his life’s work was not fully recognized.

  • Niels Andreasen decided to go to medical school to study neuropsychiatry after realizing she could have a greater impact on people’s lives than through writing a book on John Donne. This was a radical career change for her as an English professor.

  • In the late 1960s when she made this change, it was difficult for women to pursue careers in medicine. However, Andreasen succeeded in her goal and became a world expert in PET scanning technology.

  • Using PET scans, Andreasen discovered that the brain is highly active even at rest, contradicting the prevailing view. She found specific regions, now called the default network, firing synchronously when the mind is idle.

  • Later research by Raichle expanded on this discovery and helped establish the default network as an important area of neuroscience research. It is involved in interior mental life and thought when we are not focused on the external world.

  • Association cortices in the brain allow for abstract associations and meaning-making by connecting different concepts and experiences. This ability to form associations is a key source of human intelligence and creativity.

The passage discusses the importance of idle time and an unoccupied mind for creativity and problem-solving. It explores the concept of the “default mode network” in the brain, which is active when the mind is at rest and allows for random associations and mental wandering.

It uses the example of Patient J, who lost this function due to a stroke, to show how inner mental dialogue enables creativity and conversation. However, modern lifestyles and technology addiction leave little time for an idle mind. People are constantly bombarded with information and feel compelled to respond immediately through phones, emails, etc.

This constant stimulation alters brain reward pathways and conditions people to seek constant activity, undermining the default mode. Without time for the mind to wander freely, people have fewer opportunities to make random connections that lead to new ideas and insights. So while technology enables connectivity, it may also curb creative and integrative thinking by occupying the mind constantly.

The passage discusses how taking breaks from constant stimulation and focused work can promote “elastic thinking” and creativity. It suggests incorporating short disconnects like going for a jog or shower without your phone to allow your mind to wander. Work breaks like doing mundane tasks or procrastinating can also give the unconscious time to process problems. Figures like Leonardo da Vinci took purposeful breaks while working to enable unconscious consideration. The example is given of how submarine captain Francis Low had an unlikely but pivotal insight to launch bombers from aircraft carriers to bomb Japan after Pearl Harbor when conventional wisdom said it was impossible. His idea ultimately succeeded due to breaking out of standard paradigms and recognizing circumstances had changed. The passage advocates embracing the ability to question assumptions and think outside the box, as change can make previously unthinkable solutions feasible. Regular breaks may aid this flexible, innovative kind of thinking.

  • Roger Sperry conducted experiments splitting the brains of animals by severing the corpus callosum, revealing that the left and right hemispheres can function independently. His work challenged the prevailing view that the right hemisphere was “relatively retarded.”

  • Studies on human epilepsy patients who underwent the same procedure confirmed Sperry’s findings. This showed that the two hemispheres have some different capabilities, though both can process information independently.

  • More recent research using brain imaging technologies has found that a structure in the right hemisphere may have a special ability to generate novel or original ideas, especially when problem-solving or confronting change.

  • Cognitive neuroscience pioneers like John Kounios aimed to use these new technologies to understand the physical brain processes involved in thinking and problem solving, in order to help manipulate and change thought processes.

  • Kounios’s own work studying language processing with brain imaging technologies led him to a new association about the origins of ideas, continuing the exploration into how the brain generates novel insights.

  • Sentences can be puzzling like intellectual puzzles, as words have multiple meanings and it takes integrative thinking to choose the right definitions based on context.

  • The human brain is remarkably able to quickly understand sentences unconsciously by considering all word meanings and contexts simultaneously. This was vastly underestimated by early AI researchers.

  • Kounios became interested in how brain language comprehension relates to problem-solving. Studies showed the right hemisphere plays a role in imagination, but relied on unreliable self-reports.

  • Kounios and Beeman independently decided to study insight using neuroscience tools, as this important topic was largely ignored. Insights are original ideas that suddenly pop into consciousness to solve problems.

  • Beeman hypothesized insights rely on associations between word meanings and contexts. The right hemisphere may help see overlapping associations needed for metaphors, jokes, etc. Both sought to understand the neural basis of these creative “aha moments”.

So in summary, it discusses how sentences and problems can be puzzling like intellectual puzzles, and how Kounios and Beeman pioneered using neuroscience to understand the brain mechanisms behind insightful solutions and language comprehension.

  • Researchers Kounios and Beeman studied the brain processes underlying insight (aha moments) using word puzzles called CRAs (compound remote associate problems).

  • Beeman used fMRI to see which brain areas were activated, while Kounios used EEG to measure timing. Combining data gave a complete picture.

  • In CRAs, subjects see 3 words and must find a 4th word that combines with each to form phrases. Insight involves weak, remote associations, while analysis tests obvious associations logically.

  • Their key findings:

    • Insight relies on increased activity in the right anterior superior temporal gyrus, which generates obscure associations.
    • The left and right hemispheres take different problem-solving approaches, like in language processing.
    • Deep unconscious processing precedes the conscious “aha!” moment.
    • The anterior cingulate cortex may control the strength of left/right hemisphere contributions and influence when an insight occurs.

In summary, they showed insight is a long unconscious process involving remote right brain associations, managed by communication between brain regions like in language understanding.

Here is a summary of the key points from the two passages:

  • The two hemispheres of the brain contribute differently to problem solving. The left hemisphere focuses on logical, conventional ideas while the right hemisphere generates more original, unexpected ideas.

  • When an initial logical approach fails to solve a problem, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) helps broaden attention to allow ideas from the right hemisphere to surface. It does this by suppressing visual activity in the right visual cortex.

  • Researchers discovered some test subjects had neural activity patterns several seconds before a problem was presented that indicated their brains were “primed” for insight. This suggested the psychological state can influence whether the right hemisphere ideas emerge.

  • Adopting a “relaxed mindset” rather than intense logical focus helps unconventional ideas surface via the ACC mechanism. Researchers observed this in a Zen Buddhist meditator who was able to improve his performance on a test by shifting his mental state.

  • Mindfulness practices can enhance the ability to broaden focus and consider both ordinary and unconventional ideas. Adjusting external conditions like lighting, space, and avoiding interruptions can also foster original thought and insight.

So in summary, the two passages discuss the brain mechanisms and environmental/mental factors that influence whether logical or insightful, unexpected ideas arise when solving problems. The right hemisphere and adopting the right mindset or conditions are keys to generating original solutions.

  • Jonathan Franzen originally had grand plans to become a renowned literary writer and professor by his 30s, living a comfortable literary life. However, his first two books were only modestly successful.

  • He struggled with a phenomenon called “functional fixedness” - an inability to see existing tools or skills being used in new ways. Franzen was fixated on his original vision for his career and art.

  • Several life events like marriage struggles, his father’s illness, and career setbacks shook him out of this fixed mindset. He realized he didn’t need to write large, serious literary works and could focus on character-driven stories instead.

  • This change in approach led to his breakthrough bestselling novel “The Corrections” in 2001, which brought him great success and established him as a major American writer. Overcoming functional fixedness and allowing flexibility in his thinking freed Franzen to accomplish more than he originally envisioned.

  • Frozen thinking occurs when one has a fixed mindset and is unable to reexamine preconceived ideas or accept new evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This can lead to blindness and resistance to change.

  • Experts are particularly vulnerable to frozen thinking as they become deeply immersed in the conventional knowledge and wisdom of their field. This can impair their ability to accept new ideas or be flexible in novel situations.

  • Studies have shown junior doctors may have better outcomes in complex cases as they are less likely to form quick judgments based on past experience. Expert doctors prone to frozen thinking may miss important details.

  • Similarly, discontinuing unnecessary medications for nursing home patients led to improved health outcomes, suggesting experts rely too heavily on standard drug treatments without scrutinizing individual patient needs.

  • Military doctrine is especially susceptible to becoming frozen as authoritative principles are institutionalized and passed down the ranks. Overreliance on past lessons can be dangerous if conditions change. Adaptability is now seen as key to success in warfare.

  • The Yom Kippur War provides an example where Israel failed to sufficiently question its assumptions in the face of mounting warnings from neighboring countries, and was caught off guard by their surprise attack due to frozen thinking.

  • Psychologists conducted an experiment using chess board positions to test how expertise can hamper flexible thinking when faced with unusual situations.

  • Players of different ratings levels were shown board positions with either one winning solution or two solutions (one elegant/clever and one familiar/routine).

  • Those shown the board with two solutions had difficulty finding the clever solution once they had found the familiar one, showing “frozen thinking.”

  • The study was able to quantify the effect - finding the extra routine solution produced cognitive effects equivalent to a 600 rating point difference, similar to a 45 point IQ difference.

  • This demonstrates that expertise can significantly impair one’s ability to think flexibly and see unusual solutions, as experts get stuck on familiar patterns of thinking. Having depth of knowledge is usually good, but experts must battle “frozen thinking” to think outside established frameworks.

Here is a summary of the key points about the benefits of discord from the passage:

  • Exposure to dissenting or deviant opinions can help broaden people’s thinking and make them more open-minded, even if they don’t consciously agree with the dissenting views. An influential study found that people who heard others incorrectly identify a color were later more likely to identify ambiguous colors as the incorrect one.

  • Engaging with those who disagree can act to reduce “frozen thinking” and dogmatic cognition. It encourages considering more options and better decision making.

  • Seeking diversity of views among students/employees creates an environment that promotes liberating assumptions and exploring more possibilities. This leads to more flexible thinking and ability to respond to change.

  • Allowing dissent and carefully considering opposing views could help avoid mistakes from rigid thinking, as illustrated by failures of Israeli intelligence agencies prior to wars when they rejected warnings.

  • While those most prone to dogmatic thinking may resist dissent, exposing oneself to contradictory opinions in a respectful manner can help broaden one’s thinking style over time, even if done reluctantly.

  • Our unconscious mind quickly filters ideas to focus on the most promising ones and discard unhelpful ones, like considering marble tiles but not Peppermint Patties.

  • However, this filtering can prevent good ideas from emerging if they are seen as too unusual. Clarence Saunders solved this issue with grocery stores by letting customers directly select products, an idea his competitors overlooked.

  • The “nine-dot problem” is a puzzle studied by psychologists to understand how we think outside the box. It involves connecting nine dots in a square with four lines without lifting your pencil. Most cannot solve it because their mind assumes the boundary defined by the dots.

  • Altering the presentation, like adding dots or drawing a larger box around the dots, reduces this boundary effect and more can solve it by thinking “inside the box.” This shows how environment shapes our unconscious filters over time.

  • To overcome filters and think more innovatively, we must perform mental transformations to redraw boundaries, as with the larger box, and open ourselves to unusual but potentially useful ideas.

Scientists can now use transcranial stimulation to study the brain structures involved in cognitive filtering and idea generation. By targeting specific areas of the brain with electric currents, they can temporarily disrupt those regions in healthy volunteers.

One study disrupted a region in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which normally filters out unworkable ideas. With this area hampered, more subjects were able to solve the nine-dot problem. This suggests the lateral PFC plays a key role in cognitive filtering.

Damage to the lateral PFC, as in the author’s father after a stroke, can lead to impaired filtering and inappropriate idea generation. While we use our whole brain, transcranial stimulation may allow us to access untapped potential by adjusting our cognitive filters.

The author argues that innovative ideas often sound “nutty” at first. Scientists must allow ideas to flow freely and not overly censor them based on initial assessments. Successful innovation requires generating many ideas and discarding failed concepts. Maintaining a sense of open-mindedness and curiosity can help resist over-filtering ideas as we gain experience.

  • In 1978, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan had meetings in Los Angeles to discuss ideas for Indiana Jones films. A transcript of 90 pages reveals some questionable ideas they floated.

  • They discussed the love interest being 22 years old but already having a 10 year history with Indy. This would imply they had an affair when she was 11-12 and he was 25, which they acknowledged was an “outrageous idea.”

  • Seth MacFarlane, known for controversial humor, says generating new ideas is difficult now due to fear of negative backlash on social media if ideas are deemed offensive.

  • The passage discusses how children think more freely due to an immature prefrontal cortex. This elastic thinking allows wild, uncensored ideas but fades with age unless deliberately tapped into.

  • Many acclaimed scientists, artists and inventors displayed odd behaviors, like Nikola Tesla’s attachment to pigeons. Eccentric behaviors seem common in fields valuing elastic thinking. Overall, the summary examines the relationship between creativity, crazy ideas, and eccentric behavior.

There appears to be a meaningful link between a tendency toward eccentric behavior and a capacity for elastic thinking based on the following evidence:

  • Studies found that children of schizophrenic mothers who did not have schizophrenia themselves were unusually artistic and eccentric, suggesting a genetic inheritance of traits associated with schizotypy/loose cognitive filtering that allows for both nonconformity and divergent thinking.

  • People who score high on tests measuring schizotypy traits tend to be both eccentric and skilled at divergent/elastic thinking. High schizotypy is linked to decreased activity in brain regions involved in cognitive filtering.

  • Extreme examples like John Nash show how low cognitive filtering can enable both original ideas and eccentric beliefs/behavior, for better or worse.

  • Many great historical thinkers exhibited eccentric traits as well as original ideas, indicating minds on the high end of schizotypy.

  • Different creative fields require varying combinations of unconscious elastic thinking and conscious analytical thinking to shape ideas. Studies found correlations between personality traits and careers emphasizing more improvisation vs composition.

So in summary, a tendency towards loose cognitive filtering and schizotypy appears genetically and neurologically linked to both eccentric behavior and a capacity for the divergent, elastic thinking involved in generating original ideas. The relationship seems strongest in fields emphasizing improvisation.

  • The passage discusses the excessive risk-taking and substance abuse common among many pioneering jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker consuming large amounts of alcohol and drugs.

  • It contrasts this with scientists, who must generate ideas that can be rigorously tested through experimentation. While scientists may be eccentric, they tend to moderate their behavior more than musicians.

  • The passage then discusses how both imaginative/elastic and analytical thinking are important. A story is shared about a woman who became a successful author after starting to write creatively, despite facing rejection and lack of support initially.

  • A brain imaging experiment showed that humans think about logically identical syllogisms differently depending on whether they involve meaningful words vs abstract letters, showing distinct analytical vs associative thinking networks.

  • The passage argues we all have two distinct thinkers - a logician and a poet - within us, and our ability to shift between these modes impacts our success. Creative works emerge from the struggle between these two thinkers.

  • Carl Sagan experimented with marijuana in college and wrote anonymously about his experiences, noting similarities to schizotypal thinking like unusual associations and enhanced artistic appreciation.

  • Early scientific studies also found marijuana could enhance “elastic thinking” skills like idea generation and accepting contradictions for some users. It seemed to equalize abilities by lowering cognitive filters for those who scored lower on tests sober.

  • While marijuana may benefit certain cognitive skills, it also carries risks, as evidenced by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Heavy marijuana use may have triggered his schizoaffective disorder.

  • Alcohol has also been said to boost creativity for some by loosening thought processes. Recent studies found modest alcohol intake improved performance on divergent thinking tests.

  • However, both drugs can negatively impact cognition if overused by exceeding thresholds into impeded or incoherent thinking. Moderation seems key to potential benefits while managing risks, similar to traits like schizotypy versus schizophrenia.

  • Psychedelic drug research is making a comeback after being largely banned in the 1970s. Scientists are studying the effects of drugs like LSD and psilocybin on the brain.

  • Research at Oxford found these drugs affect the default network, which is involved in one’s sense of self and elastic thinking. Their effects on elastic thinking are still being studied.

  • Ayahuasca, a plant tea from the Amazon, has been shown to enhance divergent thinking and ideas generation but reduces analytical thinking. It does this by interfering with information flows in the brain’s neural hierarchies.

  • Some speculate enhanced forms of psychedelic drugs could be developed to boost overall intelligence, though they may also have risks. More research is needed on their mechanisms and side effects.

  • Other ways to enhance elastic thinking include mental fatigue. A French study found exhausting the executive brain through a tedious task improved performance on divergent thinking tests. This suggests elastic thinking may peak when analytical abilities are weakest. Timing tasks accordingly could maximize performance.

So in summary, the passage discusses recent psychedelic drug research and how drugs and mental fatigue can impact different thinking modes in the brain. More research is still needed to understand these effects.

  • Researchers found handwritten essays written by young Catholic nuns in 1930 describing their lives and influences. 180 of those nuns were later subjects in a longevity study.

  • The researchers analyzed the emotional content of the essays and found those who were most positive lived about 10 years longer on average than those who were least positive.

  • This helped fuel the field of positive psychology, which focuses on enhancing positive feelings rather than just treating mental illnesses. Positive emotions can broaden cognitive flexibility.

  • Negative emotions trigger specific reactions like fear triggering fight or flight. This narrows thinking. Positive emotions don’t specify reactions, allowing broader thinking.

  • Good moods from activities, gratitude journals, and kindness can boost cognitive flexibility and problem solving by relaxing cognitive filters. Positive mood and flexibility reinforce each other.

  • Positive psychology teaches maintaining good mood through pleasurable activities, focusing on positives, and disputing negative thoughts to relax filters and think more creatively. Happiness improves mental productivity and problem solving.

The passage tells a story about the author’s mother and her independent and determined spirit. When her blender broke after buying it online, she refused help and figured out a way on her own to return the broken one and get a refund by exchanging it for a new one at Best Buy. This stemmed from her lifelong motto of “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” which helped her survive a Nazi slave labor camp and build a new life after the Holocaust. The story illustrates her resourcefulness and problem-solving ability even in her 90s, showing how people can find creative solutions when motivated to address challenges, no matter their age. It’s presented as an example of “elastic thinking” and the human ability to overcome obstacles through determination and imagination.

  • A boy saves himself from being killed by coming up with an imaginative story when questioned by SS officers at a factory. The officers are convinced by his storytelling abilities.

  • The father sees this as an example of how human imagination allows us to concoct stories to save ourselves, which is unique to humans compared to other species.

  • War requires flexibility and adaptation to change. Modern life also brings unprecedented change through technology, information, economic and social upheaval.

  • To succeed today, we must not only understand the present but anticipate the future, as the world changes rapidly. Our analytical skills are important but more so is the ability to generate new ideas through elastic thinking.

  • The brain is built to respond to negative emotions, but in modern civilized society there may not be an actual response called for, leaving one feeling powerless. Thanks to understanding the mind, we can take charge of our thinking and become more elastic thinkers.

Here is a summary of the article “Evolution of Touchscreen Technology” from July 31, 2014 on the website

  • Touchscreens were first developed in the 1970s and early versions used resistive touch technology which required physically pressing the screen.

  • Capacitive touchscreens debuted in the 1980s and measure electrical capacitance from the human body, allowing touches with fingers without pressure. This made for more elegant and responsive screens.

  • Multi-touch capabilities emerged around the year 2000 and allowed users to interact with apps and content using common gestures like pinch to zoom. This popularized touchscreens for consumer devices.

  • Higher resolution screens, stronger and thinner glass, and improved sensing algorithms have made modern touchscreens much more precise and responsive compared to early versions.

  • Future technologies may include advanced haptics that provide tactile feedback, curved or foldable screens, and innovative input methods like hovering hands above screens or projected keyboards. Touchscreens continue to evolve toward more natural and intuitive human-computer interaction.

Here is a summary of the key points from the sources provided:

  • Young male zebra finches demonstrate diverse innovations in their songs, providing evidence of animal creativity.

  • Evolutionary psychologists argue that artistic and creative talents may have evolved as fitness indicators for mate selection.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been associated with both enhanced creativity and deficits in motivation and reward processing. Dopamine receptor genes may play a role.

  • Occupational research theorist Michael Kirton distinguished between adaptors and innovators in problem-solving styles within organizations.

  • Neuroscientist Rodrigo Quiroga studied concept cells that encode memories of people, places and objects in the brain’s medial temporal lobes.

  • The default mode network in the brain’s cortex is most active during rest and supports internal mentation like daydreaming, memory consolidation and planning. Hans Berger pioneered EEG research on the resting brain.

  • Exposing people to different brainteaser problems or cultural contexts can activate different pathways to insight and creative thinking. Training can also enhance performance on divergent thinking tasks.

  • Disconnecting from mobile devices even briefly can increase anxiety levels for heavy users due to weakening of the extended self, with implications for cognition, emotion and well-being.

Here is a summary of the key points across the passages provided:

  • Research shows a positive correlation between interacting with nature and cognitive benefits. However, findings need to be interpreted carefully.

  • Giorgio Vasari’s biography indicated he talked extensively with Leonardo da Vinci, providing a firsthand account.

  • The story of Jimmy Doolittle and the 1942 bombing raid on Japan describes how it boosted American morale after Pearl Harbor and crippled the Japanese fleet.

  • Neuroscientist Roger Sperry performed split-brain experiments dividing communication between brain hemispheres. This led to insights about specialized functions and challenges to prevailing views.

  • Solving insight problems involves transient unconscious activation in the right hemisphere followed by conscious processing in the left. Meditation may enhance divergent thinking related to insight.

  • Functional fixedness and mental rigidity can block insights. Examples include difficulty seeing new uses for objects and challenges reconsidering established theories or policies. Overcoming such mindsets requires open, elastic thinking.

  • Studies show familiar solutions can block optimal ones on problems like chess puzzles due to perseverance of initial ideas. Dissenting opinions can improve group problem-solving if minority views are expressed and considered respectfully.

  • Insight problems like the nine-dot puzzle become easier with strategy hints, removing implied boundaries, or adding dots to reduce mental blocks hindering new perspectives.

  • In 2012, researchers Richard P. Chi and Allan W. Snyder published a study showing that applying transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the prefrontal cortex helped subjects solve insight problems that they had previously been unable to solve.

  • The lateral prefrontal cortex is involved in complex thinking skills like cognitive flexibility and creativity. Studies have shown boosts in these skills from noninvasive brain stimulation of this area.

  • Some researchers and creators have reported how psychoactive substances like marijuana, LSD, ayahuasca and alcohol helped stimulate their creativity by loosening normal thought patterns and inhibition. For example, musician Brian Wilson credited marijuana with helping influence the creative peak of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.

  • However, links have also been found between psychosis, mood disorders and elevated creativity/divergent thinking in some populations. Factors like mental illnesses, personality traits, intelligence, circadian rhythms and time of day can all influence problem solving and creative skills in various ways according to different studies.

  • Overall, the research presented suggests that temporarily perturbing or disrupting normal brain function through various means like brain stimulation, psychoactive substances or circadian influences, can potentially enhance creative and divergent thinking in some people by loosening conventional thought patterns and cognitive inhibitions. However, effects are complex and not guaranteed.

Here is a summary of the key points from 1): 387–401:

  • A study from 1930 found that positive emotions expressed in autobiographies and diaries of Catholic nuns early in life was correlated with longevity later in life.

  • Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s research showed that positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and scope of attention in a way that builds long-term personal resources like social connections and problem-solving skills.

  • Experiments support that divergent thinking like creative idea generation is linked to positive moods while convergent thinking benefits from negative moods.

  • One famous activity shown to boost well-being is practicing gratitude through writing letters of gratitude.

  • Defensive questioning techniques used in cognitive therapy predict symptom reduction for depression.

  • Research on the brain shows age-related declines across cognitive domains in the default mode network compared to more stable task-positive networks.

  • Some aggressive animal species like chimpanzees show that coalition killing can be an adaptive strategy rather than only a result of human impacts.

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