Leonard Mlodinow
'Freud was wrong about almost everything'

Decades ago, most people would have had to have only made a handful of decisions in their daily lives, like what's for dinner or which road to take to work.

But now our lives are so rich in decision-making that it’s led us into unchartered territory, it’s a recipe for disaster, but the best-selling physicist/author behind The Drunkard’s Walk and former Stephen Hawking co-author Leonard Mldoinow is touting a relatively new elixir for our age.

An antidote to the reasoned and analytical style of thinking that was once equated with intellectual grandeur, and in an overloaded world elastic thinking has become an almost evolutionary advantage. It’s a style of awareness or to put it better a type of bottom-up thinking which encourages multiple threads of thought in parallel. If it was good enough for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, I’m sure its good enough for the rest of us. In fact, Leonard goes as far as calling people with a scripted type of structural thinking as low-level gods. His latest book Elastic Thinking pulls together the latest neuroscience to show us  that amongst the vast tsunami of information we drown ourselves in, our survival increasingly depends on this.

The first time I saw you in action was actually on a YouTube video. There was a talk that was given by Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra and you got up in the audience. You seemed a little bit peeved to say the least. Or that’s the sense that I got trying to correct Deepak Chopra.

I don’t know what I was exactly feeling. I wasn’t peeved, it was just an odd experience because –

It was an odd debate.

It was an odd debate and I had a lot to say on both sides. I had decided to sit on my hands and not ask any questions. The moderator recognised me in the audience, and I think they cut this out of the video, but he pulled me out and said, “Dr. Mlodinow, you’re a physicist, ask a question.” He put me on the spot and I really did not want to get up on national TV and make a fool of myself, but you know, I was trying to be polite. I had trouble putting together what Deepak was even trying to say so that’s why I expressed it in –

I got that.

Afterward, I went up to him and we traded emails and he said, “Yeah, teach me physics.” I don’t know if this was in the video but I asked him, “Do you want me to teach you physics so that you can use it the right way?” But I didn’t really mean it disrespectfully. I meant it. He’s a great guy and he was open to it.

So this latest book of yours is really interesting. I think the best place to start would be a quote from your book. Where you say “elastic thinking is a non-linear mode of processing in which multiple threads of thought may be pursued in parallel.” So maybe you can open that can of worms?

Yeah, that could be the whole hour. So you could put the different ways you think on a spectrum. At one end is the rational, logical, analytical thinking. It is linear, role-based thinking where you start with a premise, and you have certain rules of reasoning. You go from A to B to C to D. That’s the kind of thinking that corporations and universities tend to look for. In the classic corporation, the CEO has all the ideas, tells you what to do, you’re a smart guy or woman and you implement those ideas from the top down. In the brain that happens too.

And you call that the executive brain.

Yeah neuroscientists call that the executive brain. It’s the executive structures in your brain.

It’s the pre-frontal cortex.

Yeah parts of your pre-frontal cortex. They direct your attention to certain things, guide your thinking towards a goal. At the other end of the spectrum is elastic thinking. Elastic thinking does not follow rules. It’s what you use to invent the rules, or even uncover the rules because we often don’t realise what rules are guiding us. It helps you break the rules. It’s bottom-up thinking. A good example of this is an ant colony. So the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That thinking arises not from any guidance but from very simple rules executed by a multitude of components. The sum is brilliant even though there’s no one guiding where that comes from. That’s non-linear thinking. When computer programmers today are programming their computers to use neural nets and execute that kind of thinking they don’t even know how the computer finally solves a problem. When it plays ‘go’ it can’t tell you how it came up with that idea. Whereas when they programmed the Deep Blue they knew exactly what it was doing.

So there’s this tension that goes on because we live in a society where you talk a lot about the scripted individual and this idea that a lot of nature follows is a type of script. But you say what saved us from extinction was our elastic thinking, allowing us to overcome challenges through innovation. So do you feel like it’s become the thing that separates us from most of nature and has allowed us to become top of the food chain in a way?

Definitely. Very few animals have much ability in elastic thinking. First of all only mammals have the prefrontal cortex, and the lateral prefrontal cortex which is an important structure is only in primates. So our brains are different.

Ok in a moment I will play you a question from renowned primatologist Frans de Waal

It’s usually a matter of degree. You can’t really say we’re the only ones, but you also have to admit that crows can’t make ferris wheels. You can argue that they’re useless so it’s not an advance but I think I can safely say we’re the only ones with a theory of the universe. So there is something special about humans.

Freakonomics excerpt:

I’ve been doing this for a long time, like 40 years. And the question, whether humans are different and how they are different, is for me a sort of weird question because for me humans are primates. So they’re not fundamentally different. Darwin, of course, said that we descend from the apes, but I think he didn’t go far enough. We are basically apes — there’s no good reason to distinguish us from apes. And there are taxonomists who have argued that we should not even have a special genus — we are just part of chimpanzees and bonobos because, in terms of DNA, we are 98.5% identical. In every respect, I consider human intelligence and cognition a variation on animal intelligence and cognition. I don’t see it as fundamentally different.

I agree 100 percent.  We are definitely primates. That’s not to say that we aren’t unique but bonobos are unique, chimpanzees are also unique, each species is unique and has its own qualities. But to say that our thinking is the same is also wrong. That would be like saying we’re as strong as a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees are stronger and physically more powerful than us and I think it’s fair to say that we’re mentally more powerful than the chimpanzee.

How do they think? That’s a very difficult question because we can’t help but approach it from the point of view of how our brains are structured. So how does a bat think? I can safely say. . . or maybe I can’t. Let me back up. I was going to say I can safely say that we are better at abstract thinking and theorizing than a bat because we have general relativity, and quantum theory and they don’t. But that could be totally wrong because we have language, and the written word, and ways of passing our ideas to the next generation. It’s easy to confuse that quality that we have with brilliance. I think if I were dropped into the world in a forest, and never went to school, never read a book, and never had parents to teach me, would I have discovered physics? Certainly not. Would I do anything above what we observe chimpanzees doing in the wild? If you take away that aspect of the gradual building of knowledge, and customs and culture, we would probably seem a lot more like chimpanzees than we do.

"His special theory of relativity. The math was not complicated. It was high school math. Any physicist could have come up with that theory."

On the real talent of Albert Einsten

Let’s talk a bit about our brains as humans in the society that we’ve created. It seems like the book was written as a response to the ever-changing fast pace of the world. We have to adapt to that, and elastic thinking is a tool that can allow us that kind of adaptation. Would you agree?

Yeah to really thrive and succeed you need to employ elastic thinking. Elastic thinking is – what I say in the book, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Or Einstein I think is a really good example. His special theory of relativity. The math was not complicated. It was high school math. Any physicist could have come up with that theory. So what was different about him? He had an elastic ability to understand the assumptions that everyone was making implicitly without even realising. Once he realised the assumptions they were making the rest was easy.

So you’re talking about paradigm shifts.

Look at Uber. If you were a taxi company trying to think analytically and come up with a way of being more efficient, and ignoring the paradigm shift that Uber represents, you go out of business. Look at Blockbuster, look at Encyclopedia Britannica, look at Kodak. All these companies didn’t recognise the shift that was happening and got left behind. You need elastic thinking to recognise change, to understand change, to look at your own assumptions and see if they have to be altered, and to come up with new ideas.

I think elastic thinking is not just important in terms of a paradigm shift but also to everyone in their everyday life. I’m not just talking about creating the iPhone because not everyone can do that –

No, but you do it in your own life. A lot of people are in a rut in their jobs. They don’t even realise that they’re not happy, or that they could be happier. They don’t question their direction. I’m a physicist, I’ve made computer games, I wrote for Star Trek and MacGyver, I was an executive at a fortune 500 company. I’m at the end of the spectrum, I’m not saying you should change your job. On the other hand, millennials change their jobs every few years and to get used to that they need elastic thinking. You need elastic thinking to figure out what would make you happy, what kind of job do you want. You even need it on little nitty-gritty things. When you get a new iPhone or a new app, they don’t come with user manuals these days. Back in the day, you’d have an IT department at work, or you’d have a user manual. Now you just have to figure it out and adapt to the new iOS. That takes elastic thinking. Reading a manual is logical, analytical thinking. Figuring it out on your own is elastic thinking.

But science has changed the way we look at ourselves. I’m thinking of the example you give about the Connectome project that allowed us to identify 97 new brain regions.  So right now we’ve witnessed a paradigm shift in the way we see ourselves?

Yeah on all different levels. I think that people used to think that logical analytical thinking was the height of human reasoning, and now I think we see that’s the more mechanical computer-like aspect of us that computers can beat us at.

Which I think is what we thought we were always going to be like, or what we thought it’s how we progressed.

In the original Star Treks, the ideal person was Spock, right? Spock didn’t have emotions, he was a logical machine and data was also that sort of thing. That was something that the culture recognised as maybe being odd or nerdy but still the height of reasoning. It’s really not. It’s the easy part that computers can do. The hard part of reasoning is forming the paradigm of how we see things. I think we’re seeing that and computer scientists are seeing that too so now they’re making these neural net computers to reflect that.

Image: Umschreibung by Olafur Eliasson (2004)

"Elastic thinking does not follow rules. It’s what you use to invent the rules."

It’s interesting because there’s a subtle tension in the book which I noticed. We have interviewed people like Michio Kaku, Max Tegmark, Yuval Harari, all these people in the last year or two, and they’re emphatic on realising the idea that technology is going to take us to Star Trek and beyond. But I get the feeling from your book, that you think almost the opposite.  

I am and I’m not like Stephen Hawking either. He was very fearful of computers taking over the world. I totally do not accept that and I have to say. . . I told Stephen, “You said in 1985 that all physics would be solved by the end of the century. What do you say about that?” And he said, “I still think so. But a new century.” Look, I’m not any better than they are but the people who say this is coming by bla bla bla, they are wrong, as are the people who say it is not coming by whenever. I’m not saying that in the far future there won’t be some computer that’s just like a human. Not 2030 though. Let’s just look at what the computers can do. The ‘go’ computer was very impressive but it was built to play ‘go’. If you asked it to play chess it wouldn’t know how to do that and no one knows how to make a computer that is general purpose, that is flexible. Elastic thinking in computers is in a very structured, limited, narrow environment.

I really loved in the book when in comparison to computers you said, “a child…can do all this by the age of three while eating a banana and smearing peanut butter on the wall.”

Right, because a child has a hundred billion neurons. Each of which is connected to a thousand other neurons and the neural network computers are a hundred little circuits connected to a handful of others.

So we have created something astonishing . . . well, we didn’t create it but something has created our brains –


Well yeah evolution right?  Something else is there though that could have contributed. Something else is being tapped into, or channeled in to create the brain alongside evolution. 

Yeah so does Deepak.

I’m not Deepak.

So what do you think?

It’s an existential question and I think we have to allow for it, and science not being the only platform that creates the rules. . .

I believe that whatever it is it’s the laws of nature, the laws of physics.

But we still don’t know everything about the laws of nature and science which creates a black hole.

That’s true.

But you were talking about the power of evolution. 

I was talking about the power of evolution versus design. That’s why I was bringing her up. When I studied organic chemistry they taught us how to synthesise molecules.

My friend was doing the bottom-up non-linear thing. She got very famous by inventing ways for evolution to create the endpoint. It’s complicated but she has a way where you put in certain molecules and certain temperature, pressure, whatever, and at the end, because of a chemical reaction she gets to other molecules. You filter out the ones you want just like natural selection. Then you go through another generation, and another generation, until you finally get the molecule you want and you never designed anything. That is so powerful. That’s what created our brain, in my humble opinion.

You paraphrase William James quite a lot. I know about him his work is used in the mindfulness field and his ideas around neuroplasticity.

William James should have been Sigmund Freud in the culture –

He was synonymous with that area because of course, rational people need some kind of scientific proof as to why they’re meditating and William James was like, yes neuroplasticity is a thing.

That’s the funny thing. Both of them were pre-scientific psychologists, or at the very beginning of science looking at psychology. Freud was wrong about almost everything but James was right about almost everything. But you ask a person on the street who’s the most famous psychologist, certainly, in the old days, they would say, Freud. I think in the last couple of decades he’s getting a little more –

I think Freud got a lot of notoriety just because of his wacky hypothesis or theories –

Yeah, you’re right.

But you know you’ve got to give him grade A marks at least for coming up with such unorthodox theories.

Right, yeah you do. We’re on the same page.

"I have a six-foot-tall painting of Karl Marx in my home."

One of the things you paraphrase from William James is, “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake” So we’re only fully awake when we activate elastic thinking.

Yeah and when we’re aware of where our thoughts and feelings come from. A lot of it comes from your hidden framework which you’re not aware of. A lot of it is scripted thinking. There are all these things going on that are guiding your thinking and unless you’re mindful you don’t know that that’s what’s guiding your thinking.

It’s really interesting. You even have this page about mindfulness.  There is a lot of cross over.

Oh, there’s a big cross-over. That’s why I talk about it in several places. In the book, I give some. . .inventories they call them in psychology, these questionnaires where you can audit your elastic thinking in different dimensions. Then I give exercises to change that if you want because one purpose of the book is to help you recognise how you think and change it if you want.

I talk about mindfulness because that is a good tool for understanding how you think and deciding if you want to change it.

You say, “Analytical thinking and reasoning is a low-level god.” I liked the way you put that. If I was to walk out into the street now, and bumped into the businessmen and women in the street, would you classify them as low-level gods?

[Laughing] well most businesses worship low-level gods. Less so in tech businesses.

Really do you think so?

Well, I had a wonderful and very taxing experience working for a start-up company for two years. One hundred hour weeks, working every day, Christmas, Fourth of July, and it was the most amazing, elastic atmosphere where anything goes. You’re making up the rules. That’s the view that I tend to have. I go to the Google space and what I see is great. They have couches where you can lay and think. The cafeteria is designed so that you interact with other people and exchange ideas. Those I think are all really good ways of nurturing elastic thinking. Maybe, in reality, they’ve become evil corporations which are all about top-down thinking. I think Google used to tell you, didn’t they say take 20 percent of your time one day a week to come up with new ideas.

This plays right into the book for me. I think everyone who comes up as a Marxist, socialist, revolutionist, technologist, entrepreneur, whatever they are they eventually get subsumed by the nature of the network and become extremely ordinary.

The power of elasticity is taking risks, admitting when you’re wrong, saying, “I’ve always thought this way, but screw that I’m going to think a different way.” Then what happens is you get successful. You have money, offices, products, stock holders, and suddenly you’ve changed from a rebel into someone who has something to protect. Something that’s working. If you have something that’s working you’re not necessarily . . . Does Google now feel motivated to take the crazy ideas of their employees? Probably not. They might take a few a year. But right now they’re the big shots with everything to lose. So they stop thinking that way. I think that quote is accurate.

Let’s finish with a question about creativity because I think that’s at the heart of the book. You touch on the idea of art generating creative thoughts, and you hint at the idea that it’s almost an impediment for an artist to be paid. Talk about that tension.

Well, I was a communist when I was younger. I have a six-foot-tall painting of Karl Marx in my home. I have grown out of that although I think Marx had really good ideas. What he missed was that a lot of people are not motivated. Capitalism is all about motivating you, and it goes too far because it has a system of motivating you where one percent has 99 percent.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World is out now on Penguin

All original images by Stefan Oboski