Author Leonard Mlodinow at Kepler's

New book, 'Elastic,' outlines the higher-order thinking necessary to cope with a mad world
In his new book, 'Elastic,' author Leonard Mlodinow champions the virtues of outside-the-box thinking. Photo by Ralph Adolphs

Call it a coincidence or a marketing masterstroke, but the release of science journalist Leonard Mlodinow's new book arrives just in time to take full advantage of the new era of legal cannabis.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, out March 20 on Pantheon, is the latest title on the publishing industry's already crowded brain-science bookshelf. And this one brings scientific findings to bear on a conclusion that every dorm-room toker has come to understand: marijuana turns the brain into an idea machine.

According to Mlodinow's account, one scientist came to that conclusion fifty years ago, when smoking grass was still a taboo of the sort that could seriously damage an academic career. Eventually, the scientist declared in an essay: "The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world."

That scientist turned out to be one of the most expansive thinkers of the 20th century: cosmologist Carl Sagan.

Despite the compelling Sagan anecdote, the book is not a manifesto for the awesomeness of weed. The Sagan story is quickly followed by the story of Beach Boys resident genius Brian Wilson, who may have been pushed into mental illness by smoking too much pot. The upshot is that, yes, there is evidence that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, can indeed unlock new insights and ideas, but only for those not inclined to such thinking in the first place.

"Of course, marijuana also affects your memory," Mlodinow says. "So you may not even remember all those great ideas in the first place. It does lower your cognitive filters and enables your imagination. But it can also have a deterrent effect."

Research into cannabis, in fact, represents only a small part of Mlodinow's interests in Elastic. The book can be read as a kind of answer to that bedeviling question: What is wrong with people these days?

Mlodinow's views might be that humanity is being crippled by what political theorist Hannah Arendt called "frozen thinking," or dogma. The antidote? Cultivating its opposite: "elastic thinking."

Mlodinow has enjoyed an unusual career. A doctorate in theoretical physics who has also written scripts for television, he is best known for a series of books on particular aspects of brain science, from understanding randomness to plumbing the subconscious.

Elastic is Mlodinow's investigation of something called "schizotypy," a psychological term describing the degree to which a given personality is open to new or novel ideas. On one end of that continuum are conventional thinkers, content to follow rules. On the other end are schizophrenics. Somewhere in the middle are the innovative thinkers who are capable of breakthrough, life-transforming ideas.

Mlodinow outlines three hierarchies of thinking—the most primitive one is "scripted thinking," which is, he said, is "not really thinking, but more like an impulse. You hit your knee just right, your leg flops up." The second level is rational or logical thinking, in which straightforward rules apply.

"This is why computers can beat us at chess," Mlodinow says. "Chess is a game with specific rules and a computer can just check all the options before it acts."

The next level, a "higher order," as Mlodinow calls it, is elastic thinking, which comes not from logic or reason, but from "ideas, imagination, insights, pattern recognition, from integrating ideas and making associations among different ideas."

Rigid and dogmatic thinking is likely to be left behind in a rapidly evolving world, when change is exponential rather than linear.

"Society has gone into a period of rapid change," Mlodinow says. "The devices that you use are changing not only minor modes of operation, but the whole paradigm by which you live, whether it's a new operating system on your computer, or using Uber instead of a taxi. Trump has had more scandals that you can count. The #MeToo movement has popped up. Gay rights evolved much quicker than civil rights.

"If you're good at elastic thinking, you go with it. If you're not, you can get hurt by it." Mlodinow comes to Kepler's in Menlo Park on March 22 to discuss Elastic with Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine.

Leonard Mlodinow
Mar 22, 7:30pm, $25+
Kepler's Books, Menlo Park

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