Elastic Thinker

Leonard Mlodinow explains how to master flexible thinking for ideation and problem-solving

Published 2 years ago on Jun 30, 2018 Read

Whether or not all of life is problem-solving, it is hard to dispute that, at least in the animal kingdom, a great deal of it, because it has to be. A rock resting on a hillside takes no efort to change its destiny. Plants are alive but they can't do much better. Being stationery, relative to animals, they have less need to confront change, but also less ability. They lay down roots that more or less determine their environment, and they cope with what that entails-or die. Animals, on the other hand are built to change their circumstances by moving away from threatening conditions and situations and toward favourable ones. That is a useful ability but, because their life involves motion, they must continually act to solve various problems and riddles that they encounter. They accomplish that through senses that gather data, or some means of detecting what happening in the environment, and a brain, or a brain-like structure, that process the sensory information, so that they can interpret dynamic situations and choose the appropriate action.

But evolution is economical and does not create a Maserati where a motor scooter would do. Hence to solve their problems, animals possess the three increasingly sophisticated modes of information processing I mentioned earlier: scripted, analytical and elastic. The former addresses simple and routine problems, while the other challenges are met through the latter two.

That suggests an interesting question: If an organism is processing information, does that mean it is thinking? Slime mould, a lowly amoeboid, when placed in a maze, will figure out how to propel itself to the food. And if that food is placed at two different sites within the maze, it will propel itself to engulf them both, in the most efficient manner possible, by morphing into the shortest shape that can reach both places. The slime mold is solving a problem. Is that thinking? If that isn't thinking, why doesn't it qualify? Where o we draw the line?

According to the dictionary, to think is to "employ one's mind rationally and objectively in evaluating or dealing with a given situation; to consider something as a possible action, choice, etc; to invent or conceive of something." A textbook on neuroscience put it a bit more technically: Thought is the act of attending to, identifying, and making meaningful responses to stimuli... characterised by the ability to generate string of ideas, many of which are novel."

At their simplest, these definitions say thinking is evaluating circumstances and making a meaningful response by generating ideas. That means that scripted information processing, such as that performed by the slime mold, does not qualify as "thinking". The mold is not evaluating a circumstance, but responding to an environmental trigger. It is not generating an idea but following a preprogrammed response. The same is true of the mother goose, protecting her eggs in the nest.

That said, to exclude from one's definition of thinking the full automatic execution of a script in an organism's (or computer's) programming is just a convention, an arbitrary line we've chosen to draw. What is important to recognise is that, given that definition, what we call thinking is not necessary for much, or most, of an animal's existence.

Thinking, in the animal kingdom, is the exception, is the rule, because most animals live the largely standard-issue lives. They do just fine, most of the time, acting as automatons.What about us humans? Are our responses the result of thought, or do we, too, go through much of life by scripted habit, without thinking? 

This is an extract from Leonard Mlodinow's Elastic published by Pantheon