Elastic Thinking: Staying Competitive in Our Fast-Paced World

Dana Asby, CEI Intern

Current societal demands have us multi-tasking our way through our days: texting while making breakfast, checking the news while waiting for the bus, and filling every free moment gaining or exchanging new pieces of information. To keep up with this information overload and adapt to our ever-changing world, Leonard Mlodinow says that we need to put down our phones to make room for boredom or at least give our brains minds some space for ideas to incubate Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist who has written best-selling books with Stephen Hawking and teleplays for Star Trek: The Next Generation, teaches us how to enhance our elastic thinking in his new book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change.

Whereas more and more people are aware of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to heal and form new neural pathways, Mlodinow is talking about the elasticity of the thinking itself.  According to Mlodinow, ‘Elastic thinking endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and overcome the neural and psychological barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the existing order.’ (2018).  He claims that elastic thinking, also known as flexible thinking, is the most sophisticated level of thinking.  According to Mlodinow, there are three levels of thinking,

  • The most primitive and common type of thinking that occurs in animals from insects to mammals is scripted thinking, during which your brain relies on fixed action patterns and innate reactions to stimuli in the environment to make decisions.
  • The next level, logical and analytical thinking, requires the brain to synthesize multiple pieces of information from short and long term memory. While this is more complex than scripted thinking, it still relies on past patterns to make decisions.
  • Only elastic thinking synthesizes new ideas with the associations already in your mind. This is how creativity is generated and paradigms are shifted. Flexible thinkers crave novelty and work best when a task involves breaking boundaries (Shah, 2018).

In his 2018 article in Psychology Today ‘Your Elastic Mind,’ Mlodinow explains that elastic thinking helps us overcome the psychological barriers that make it difficult to see beyond the normal to solve novel problems. He gives us a definition of elastic thinking by enumerating its nine aspects:

  • Capacity to let go of comfortable ideas
  • Capacity to become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction
  • Capability to rise above conventional mindsets
  • Capability to reframe questions
  • Ability to abandon assumptions
  • Ability to open ourselves to new paradigms
  • Propensity to rely on imagination and logic equally
  • Willingness to experiment
  • Tolerance of failure

Perhaps all that daydreaming you did in class actually did you some good, because elastic thinking is what happens during the brain’s unconscious state.  Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen who has written about creativity and genius (2005) explains that during times of rest, our brains are constantly working to uncover new connections by looking for patterns among information we’ve recently learned (Mlodinow, 2018). Even though this is usually occurring undetected in the background, these ideas don’t pop to the front of our brains because of cognitive filters that keep the ‘crazy ideas’ at bay. Mlodinow argues that we need to let some of those crazy ideas come through a little more often and the way to relax those filters is by enhancing elastic thinking.

Getting Rid of Cognitive Filters. Surprisingly, we may be best at accessing our elastic thinking when we feel mentally depleted. Mlodinow discusses a team of researchers who gave participants tasks that required flexible thinking. The participants who had previously done tasks that required use of executive functioning, leaving them burned-out by the time they started the elastic thinking task, actually out-performed the participants whose minds were fresh and ready to go. Being mindful of that when scheduling, you may be able to enhance your imagination if you work on tedious chores that require concentration prior to tackling creative projects. When your brain is tired, it’s not going to be as efficient at putting up those cognitive filters to block the far out ideas that have brought us things like Uber, Google, the Mona Lisa, and PokémonGo, all products of elastic thinking (Shah, 2018).

The filters in your brain making sure you’re not overwhelmed by your own ideas don’t fully mature until around age 25 (Suarez, 2018), which is why children tend to have more creative thinking and can access a wacky idea much easier than us adults. The strength of these filters weakens over time, so when we reach our later years, our thinking becomes more elastic again. Those of us in the middle part of life will benefit by exercising our brains in a particular way to increase the elasticity of our thinking. To do this, we must put away our technological and other distractions and turn off our brains.

The Benefits of Meditation and Being in the Flow

An easy way to access the unconscious mind, the center of elastic thinking, is through meditation. To get to a place of non-thinking, you need to get into a focused flow. This can mean sitting down in lotus position with your eyes closed to let your thoughts drift away, but it can also mean losing yourself in running, gardening, painting, or any other activity where you reach a flow state and your actions become automatic. In addition to stretching your thinking, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of positive psychology, reminds us that reaching a state of flow where your ability to perform a task meets a presented challenge will also increase your happiness (Beard, 2014). While practicing these sorts of activities will help you think more elastically, Mlodinow emphasizes that to truly think elastically requires more than just practicing an exercise; it requires a mindset shift similar to what you experience when you practice mindfulness.

Shifting Perspective

Another essential aspect of elastic thinking is understanding how to shift perspective or our mindset, including how to incorporate the perspective of others to become more compassionate towards others and oneself. If you understand your own false assumptions and are able to dismiss them to see a new perspective, the answer to a problem will often become obvious. There are many ways to approach this in schools with students of different ages. Creative exercises where various endings are supplied to stories will help to expand their ability to consider alternative views. For older students activities such as debate, or simply listing assumptions and then finding the flaws in their thinking, will provide good practice. As adults, we may find it useful to examine our own lives through therapy to help identify false narratives and change our behavior.

Editor’s Note: Watch for more on elastic thinking in upcoming CEI Blogs.

References

Andreasen, N. (2005). The creative brain: The science of genius. New York, NY: Plume

Beard, K. (2015). Theoretically speaking: An interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow theory and development and its usefulness in addressing contemporary challenges in education. Educational Psychology Review, (27), 2, 353-364.

Mlodinow, L. (2018). Your elastic mind. Psychology Today.

Mlodinow, L. (2018). Elastic: Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. Penguin UK.

Suarez, R. (2018). A sesson in ‘˜elastic thinking.’ On Point radio show.

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