Photo taken by Martin Haburaj

This theoretical physicist is about to make you smarter

Leonard Mlodinow explains just what it takes to become an elastic thinker...

There is no shortage of books making convoluted claims about science’s understanding of creative thinking, and offering (somewhat sketchy) self-help advice.

Pass through the bookshop at any airport, and you won’t have to search its shelves for long before you’ve found a host of authors promising the cure-all solutions to becoming a ‘better you’.

What makes Elastic, Leonard Mlodinow’s latest book, stand apart in a saturated market, is its sincere grounding in logic and advice which is both practical and —crucially — attainable. 

We sat down with the theoretical physicist, screenwriter and author to discuss everything from the benefits of getting drunk to talking with strangers, and why your comfort zone is your worst enemy. 

Reading this book, it seems like it has a message that is urgent for today’s world...

“Humans all have a great capacity to adapt to change. But for the last couple of centuries, the rate of change in our society has been growing exponentially and it is finally taxing our limits to respond.

I wrote this book to help people understand what is going on and to help them nurture the elastic thinking that it takes to thrive in situations of great flux.”

Can you offer practical tasks or tips that people can put in place each day to broaden their mind?

“Human thoughts can be put on a spectrum. On one end is analytical thinking, which treats situations according to the rules of logic. At the other end of the spectrum is elastic thinking.

It is elastic thinking that we use to create the rules or to break the rules when they’re not working. It is where ideas and innovation comes from. It is the kind of thinking we need when we are faced with the situation we have never encountered before, for which we don’t have rules or must modify them.”

"Art can speak to the elastic part of your mind and stimulate it..."

“We can nurture that ability by integrating into our everyday life encounters with novel situations.

For example, by talking to people who are very different from us, or who believe different things, or by listening to the arguments with people who disagree with us. Even eating unfamiliar foods or looking at art that is outside our comfort zone can help broaden our thinking.

Any single encounter is not a magic pill but if you work to regularly come into contact with new people and things, research shows that you can bolster your own elastic thinking.”

How can elastic thinking be used as a tool for looking at rules in new ways?

“Challenging long accepted rules is very important. In the business world companies that don’t  do that become endangered and die. Look at Barnes and Noble bookstores or Blockbuster video or Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

"Computers and software are double edge swords..."

“Each of those companies did not adapt to new technologies and the new rules of business that govern them and hands were replaced by new upstart companies. Similarly, it is dangerous to stagnate in your personal life.

Those who thrive and are happiest are those who examine the rules that govern their lives and seek to optimise the results.”

How can people re-learn how to embrace more ambiguity and contradiction in their lives?

“In Elastic I provide a number of exercises that people can do to help broaden their thinking. We all have a great capacity for elastic thinking but there are individual variations based both on genetics and upbringing.”

This theoretical physicist is about to make you smarter
Leonard Mlodinow

“Often the culture we were raised in also constrains us. But once you recognise the need to accept change, and become conscious and mindful of when you must adapt, you are on your way to being successful.”

How can our creative brain can actually be stimulated by performing mundane tasks?

“Your brain solves problems big and small in similar ways. It decides what restaurant to go to, or what stock to buy, or how to respond to your boss, using, on the fundamental level, the same tools.

On the neural level the processes involves an idea generation, creativity, imagination, and information integration are the same — only the contexts are different.”

How would you advise using free time to best ‘elasticise’ your brain?

“In Elastic I provide several questionnaires that help you analyse where are your strengths and weaknesses and elastic thinking lie.

Then I talk about different techniques you can use to bolster your elastic thinking. It all has to do with gradually learning to stretch your boundaries.”

Do you believe that it is the human capacity for elastic thinking which has saved us from extinction?

“Our ability for elastic thinking has definitely saved us from extinction. As primates our physical abilities are far below average. It is only our cleverness and innovation that allowed us to survive tens of thousands of years ago when we lived in the wild.”

"Often the culture we were raised in also constrains us..."

“We learned how to band together to catch prey, how to build shelter, and how to create tools that extended our physical ability. And most of all we were explorers so when our environment changed for the worse we knew where to go to escape to a better place.”

How crucial is relaxation and periods of silence in training our brains?

“Our brains need a percolation or incubation period in which to generate new ideas. Focus is good for analytical thinking but it can get in the way of elastic thinking.

Many of our ideas come from our unconscious and quiet times or meditative times are very important for that.”

Are you concerned by our increased dependency on computers and software to navigate much of our lives?

“Computers and software are double edge swords. They can help us find new information and keep in touch with people. But they can also distract us and occupy our free time so that our minds are never free to wander or to incubate ideas.”

This theoretical physicist is about to make you smarter

“And the ease with which we can look up answers can prevent us from generating answers ourselves, in which case we could come up with different or better answers rather than the same old stuff.”

Can you explain why procrastination might not always be a bad thing?

“When we procrastinate, often we are also incubating. We are not ready to attack a problem head-on but our unconscious mind is working on the problem in the background.”

How important do you believe art to be in challenging our perceptions?

Creating art is an elastic process. The craft of art requires some analytical thinking but the invention in art is elastic. When you view art and think about what it conveys, the art can speak to the elastic part of your mind and stimulate it.”

Why is it so important to recognise the times we've been in the wrong?

“Elastic thinking is about looking at things in a new and different way. If you think you know everything and think you’re always right, that gets answered the way of you’re seeing things in a new and different way.

It is important to remind yourself that you can be wrong and make mistakes, and it is important not to fear failure.”

"When we procrastinate, often we are also incubating..."

“All these things are freeing. That’s why research on experts in many fields shows that expertise often gets into the way of solving difficult problems. Often it is the beginner who can see the new way or reframe an issue in a manner that helps its resolution. But the best combination is if you are an expert and maintain a beginners mind.”

Elastic: The Power of Flexible Thinking by Leonard Mlodinow is out now in paperback and can be purchased at Penguin Books



Further Reading