“What do Pokemon Go and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have in common?
Why do some businesses survive and others fail at the first sign of change?
What gives the human brain the edge over computers?
The answer: Elastic Thinking”
– Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow
In his recent book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow posits that elastic thinking is what the world needs more than ever as change and challenge come at us from all directions. The book outlines three levels of thinking: scripted, analytical and elastic, and argues that elastic thinking is the most valuable. In this three-part blog series, I’m going to take a look at this and explore what each of these levels of thinking involves and why elastic thinking is so special.
Let’s begin with what thinking is: the dictionary defines it as ‘the process of considering or reasoning about something’. Another definition states that ‘thinking is everything that the conscious mind does, including perception, mental arithmetic, remembering a phone number, or conjuring up images in our mind’. The simplest form of thinking, as described by Mlodinow, is scripted thinking which largely involves input and response. He continues by explaining that scripted thinking is an efficient way for nature to deal with repetitive situations often related to mating, nesting and killing prey. It is appropriate in routine situations as it produces a fixed response (and thus often fails in circumstances of novelty or change).
A dog barks and a cat runs away. A predator hunts and its prey tries to hide. Animals certainly exhibit scripted behaviour, but they can be capable of further complexity too. While dogs, cats, dolphins and monkeys are often considered on the upper end of animal intelligence there is an overlooked creature that deserves special mention. In his recent book Other Minds, Peter Godfrey explores the exotic world of the octopus and it’s very unusual ‘mind’. About 600 million years ago, cephalopods took an evolutionary departure from us and have developed a mind completely different from humans, cats, dogs, chimpanzees or dolphins. If we could communicate with them, it would truly be our closest attempt at contacting alien life.
Human brains communicate with the rest of the body through the central nervous system via neurons. Much of an octopus’s nervous system, however, is not found within the brain at all- their arms actually have twice as many neurons and they also have sensors in their legs which can smell and taste. They engage often in complex hunting that requires more manipulation and exploration than other animals are capable of, and the number of neurons found in their bodies have increased to control and coordinate all eight arms to allow for these complicated processes to take place. Human interaction with the world is shaped by how our bodies have evolved for different abilities such as walking; octopus’s capabilities are totally different, and therefore they also see the world with a different psychology, living outside any normal understanding of a brain and body. Where this creature fits into traditional ideas of intelligence and thinking appears to be open for more study and is certainly intriguing.
Not limited to animals, though, humans also employ scripted thinking in a number of ways; ‘going on autopilot’, for example, involves carrying out an action over time and arriving at a destination without really paying attention to how you got there. Another example is dogma- a belief system that doesn’t consider other options, whether it be religious or philosophical. In any dialogue that concerns or involves dogma, the person can only repeat learned ideas and phrases without ever really examining their validity. Scripted thinking even arises in social situations where one might expect some complexity: consider the standard greeting of ‘hi, how are you?’, which is inevitably followed by ‘great, how are you?’ Sound familiar? Computers also run ‘scripts’ to work out calculations and perform simple tasks, but we’ll address them in the next blog.
Humans, animals and computers all employ scripted thinking, a quick and efficient methodology which solves known problems within a limited set of criteria. This type of thinking serves a purpose, but these limitations restrict innovation and can lead to routine habitual results. In Part 2, we’ll look at analytical thinking.