The elastic behind light bulb moments

How do those great ideas come about?
20 March 2019

Interview with 

Leonard Mlodinow


this is a picture of a light bulb within a thought bubble on a chalk board


Have you ever had a lightbulb moment? These brilliant ideas or sudden realisations may appear to come from nowhere, but they’ve actually been filtered up through the vastness of your unconsciousness into your consciousness. So says physicist, screenwriter and science author Leonard Mlodinow, who has recently written a book on what he calls elastic thinking, and he told Katie Haylor about it...

Leonard - Human thinking can be put on a spectrum and at one end is logical, analytical, rational thought, that's conscious thinking, it's rule based thinking where you start with premise and the assumption you go from A to B to C and you reach some conclusion. But in order to do that, the situation has to be already framed. You have to know what questions you're asking, what your goals are, what your assumptions are.

And at the other end of the thinking spectrum is elastic thinking, and that's where that comes from. Elastic thinking isn't about following rules it's about making up the rules that you'll follow later when you use the analytical thinking. It's about how you see a situation, figure out what to ask about it and it's about how you adapt and approach a novel situation or challenge.

You need both because without the logical analytic you don't know what to do with the ideas. But in today's world more than ever, we need to emphasize elastic thinking and unfortunately it's not being emphasized. If you look at schools, the way our education system is designed, and even what companies look for, they often don't look for elastic thinking. In the world we're bombarded with new challenges all the time. Our workplace is changing. It used to be you worked for the same company your whole career and then you would work or at least in the same industry and then you changed but you keep kind of similar jobs.

Now people hop around so much and your company is always coming across new challenges. In our personal lives too. In order to thrive we have to really learn to adapt because society and culture is changing at a very rapid rate. And for that we need elastic thinking. The kind of thinking that you use to address a situation you haven't seen before, where you have to understand what you need to do, you need to frame the questions you ask, you need to understand what your goals are and in this situation need to get new ideas and how to approach a problem.

Katie - And how does this type of thinking manifest itself in the brain? Which bits are we talking about?

Leonard - Well in your brain, in your conscious mind you execute logical analytical thinking which is rule based and your problem solving. But your unconscious mind is really an idea generator. Every time you see something, you hear something, every time you think something, your unconscious mind is making different associations. These associations and ideas don't come to your conscious mind because if they did you would just drown in them. You would have so many ideas that you couldn't function and you wouldn't know which were good which were bad.

So your brain fortunately has filters which keep many of the new ideas that your brain comes up with out of your conscious mind and only pass to your consciousness the ones that seem most promising.

Katie - Are these kind of like search filters if you're doing an internet search?

Leonard - What you would think of as intelligent search filters, so they would cut out the stuff that doesn't seem promising, or that is unconventional or different. It passes along the ones that it decides are most likely to succeed. But when those filters are working in your brain they're going on past experience. So the ideas that tend to pass to your consciousness are the more conventional tried and true ideas and they keep out a lot of silly bad ideas. But along with those silly and bad ideas, are other original ideas that may seem unpromising at first but really are the most original and creative ideas that you have.

Katie - Say I do something every day, say I walk to work, same journey I've done it for years, I'm guessing my filters will be filtering out ridiculous notions like “oh what if I fly to work?”

Leonard - Do somersaults on your way! You see kids, they don't have the filters and kids are not developed. So kids do stuff like that right? You'll see a kid walking somewhere and suddenly they’ll start skipping right. You as an adult get those ideas too but those filters kill them which is unfortunate. On the other hand it's also fortunate because a lot of the ideas are just plain silly and counter-productive.

So there's a balance between the filters letting in creative, original ideas and not letting in silly, stupid ideas.

Katie - Because actually there's no way I'd be able to fly to work, but actually if I skipped to work I might get there quicker and be able to go home quicker!

Leonard - Skipping might be good, flying might be bad. But along with the great idea of skipping comes flying and crawling and all sorts of other ideas you don't want to have to consider every time you go to work

Katie - One of the things that really interested me in your book was this idea, frankly sometimes how being bored is actually not a bad thing?

Leonard - Well sure so when you're not focused on something, when your conscious mind is not directing your attention somewhere, that's when your unconscious is most free to operate and to generate new ideas. So if you have a problem in life or at work or some issue you're trying to deal with, and you stop thinking about it, then your unconscious mind is free to generate its ideas all its ideas about that. And what will happen is sometimes those ideas will pop into your consciousness, when your filters are relaxed and quiet. That's when some of those great ideas that are going in your unconscious mind can come to your consciousness and you experience that consciously as a sudden insight. You ever have a eureka moment? That's what's happening, but it's not sudden at all, it's happening while you're relaxing and while you're chilling out, your mind is generating these things and when it's ready the idea will pop into your consciousness.

Katie - Does that suggest then that actually we need to be mentally quite healthy to be able to make the most of this elastic thinking, this idea generation?

Leonard - Well to make the most of it you need to have a healthy logical analytical side of your mind and a healthy elastic side of your mind. But today it’s the elastic side that we need more than ever. In the past, we thought that artists and writers, musicians they needed new ideas they needed to be able to adapt and to look at things in different ways. But for everyday life you don't need that so much. But in today's world you do. You need to be an artist in your own life, if you really want to thrive.

Katie - Are some people just better at doing this elastic thinking?

Leonard - As a species we're all really good at it compared to any other species. It's really one of the qualities that allowed us to survive and keep from becoming extinct. But there are individual differences, so everyone can be put on a spectrum in some way along different dimensions of elastic thinking. Some of those dimensions are for instance neophilia or love of the new. Mindfulness which is your awareness of how you're thinking, is important. There's different dimensions along which one can measure how good you are at elastic thinking and I provide tests in the book where you can measure yourself and then exercises where if you want to nurture that you can do it.

Katie - I'm not so great at elastic thinking, I'm going to see if I can try to improve on that. How can we do that then?

Leonard - Well let's take neophilia. So some people are more comfortable when things aren't changing and they're not as exploratory as other people. If you're too exploratory that's not good. You might go off too far off the deep end you know, when you were in the wild, that meant maybe you fell off a cliff or got eaten by a bear.

On the other hand if you're too conventional and you sit still, never go anywhere when you have a challenge where food becomes scarce or the water dries up, you don't know where the other supplies are. So it takes a balance. And in today's world when you get a new app or a new operating system or some new instructions at work, you have to quickly adapt to that and learn how to deal with that and learn how to learn and how to use new ideas to handle those situations.

It's important to have that affinity for something new and that broadening of your mind, so that you can handle new things when they come up. There's no magic bullet for that, but there's a number of things you can do that if you integrate into your life they will in general make you a more elastic thinker. For instance often people when you go to a restaurant you order the same thing, because you know you like it. Well when I go to a restaurant always order something different. Ask what's unpopular? What's the weirdest thing you have here? You may end up liking the meal, which is the benefit of neophilia. You make those great discoveries. On the other hand, you may get the other side of neophilia, and have a really bad meal and go “Oh that was not good”.

But what will happen for sure is your mind will grow. It broadened my thinking, and the same thing is true in your interactions with people. Don't stay just within your sphere of acquaintances, try and punch out of it, try and talk to people who are as different from you as possible, who believe different things, listen to them, listen to new ideas even if you don't accept those ideas. If you listen to them they will broaden your thinking and you'll be more creative when you need to be in other areas.

A very important part of elastic thinking is to get rid of the fear of failure, to not mind being wrong. To be able to take chances because when these ideas come to you, some of them are going to be good, some are gonna be bad and you don't always know. But the idea is to loosen up those filters that are keeping your ideas from coming to your conscious mind. Whenever you're afraid of failure, those filters get tighter and they let less through.

Katie - So are you saying then that thinking positively will help you to loosen those filters in and of itself?

Leonard - Psychologists have found that’s a broadening experience. When you have negative emotions such as fear and anxiety that focuses you and has the effect of blotting out things that are not directly relevant to the threat. But when you're in a happy, open mood where there is no threat and you're open to the world, then you’re broadening your mind and you get more new ideas.

Katie - One of the points you make in your book is that mental exhaustion seems to be quite a good time to think elastically. Why on Earth would that be the case?

Leonard - When you're mentally exhausted one of the aspects of your mind that's exhausted is what's called the executive function, the part of your brain that filters out ideas. By being exhausted you think that you have no energy, but your brain is also settling down and what happens is those police, they take a break too. And that's when you get the most insight and the best ideas. So sometimes being exhausted while it's not great for analytical logical thinking which takes a lot of effort, is wonderful for elastic thinking which happens on the unconscious level.

Katie - Can elastic thinking help us to do better science?

Leonard - That's the key to science. Take Einstein with special relativity. The mathematics of special relativity, any high school kid can do it. But what he did was he looked at a problem that others were looking at within the framework of Newtonian theory, which was the theory of physics back then. And he said “well what assumptions are they making, what framework are they looking at? They're looking at this Newtonian framework. Are there other frameworks we can look at these questions at. Where does that lead?”. And voila in a couple of weeks he came up with special relativity. That was not a tour de force of logical analytical thinking as much as it was brilliant elastic thinking.


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