Ready for a riddle?
I’m not generally a riddle lover. But I’m listening to a book on tape that my wife enjoyed, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, by Leonard Mlodinow (m-lod’-nov).
The book is about the human brain and the multiple methods by which we think — something science has only recently come to understand.
The book addresses what he calls our brain’s elasticity: an ability to think creatively, to consider perspectives beyond our own, and to draw connections between radically different ideas in a non-logical manner.
In order to illustrate what he means, he opens one chapter with a challenge to the reader: Can you solve these riddles? As I listened to the book while navigating through traffic, I took him up on it. Are you ready to give some a try?
#1. A man is reading a book when the lights go out. Even though the room is pitch dark, he continues reading. How? (Note: it’s not an electronic book.)
#2. A magician claims to be able to throw a ping-pong ball so that it goes a short distance, comes to a dead stop, then returns back to him. And he says he can do this without bouncing it off anything, tying anything to it, or giving it spin. How?
While you consider those, I’ll note that these kinds of riddles can be challenging because we tend to think analytically most of the time, and especially when trying to solve problems.
When we think analytically, our brain tries to travel the shortest path to a solution, so we tend to rely on what we already know (or think we know). In fact, these riddles are designed to encourage exactly that kind of approach.
But it’s logical thinking that actually makes these riddles difficult to solve! We need to think outside our normal patterns, and even refuse to follow straightforward logic to get to the answers.
In the first riddle, the man is reading from a book. But it’s written in Braille, so he’s reading with his fingers.
The magician isn’t tossing the ping-pong ball against a wall or across the floor, as we might first imagine. He’s throwing it straight up into the air, so it reverses direction and comes back to him thanks to gravity.
The reason for including such riddles in the book is not to trick us, but to illustrate how our minds can jump to the wrong conclusions. When we intently focus our analytical powers, we sometimes miss the point.
Ironically, our brains often make the most creative connections, and find solutions to problems that otherwise evade us, when they act without conscious direction so our thoughts can roam freely.
One way to become more in touch with our elastic brain involves a different kind of effort. Mlodinow describes how he purposely tests his most closely held beliefs in order to widen his perspective and engage more of his brain.
He selects a deeply held value or belief (some might call it a prejudice) and tries to see it from the side of a person of good intention who holds the opposite belief.
He knows he’s not fooling himself, and he doesn’t expect to change his own opinion.
But by working to understand why others believe what they believe, and how they might view his opinions, he usually comes to accept that there can be different positions on the matter, and that those who disagree with him are not truly evil, as he might originally have felt.
To me, this is one of the major insights of the book. Though it’s natural and generally helpful for our brains to take the easy route to a decision, it’s important to use all our faculties when we want to understand another person’s perspective, politics, culture or beliefs.
We tend to be rigid and judgmental when we think analytically. So when that fails us, as it sometimes does when trying to communicate with others, we need to think more elastically.
We will come to understand ourselves and others better — and maybe even regain a more civil society — when we can train ourselves not to retreat to our most comfortable logic.
The book deserves more than this brief description of one point. There are many more insights in it. So I encourage you to read it (or listen to it) yourself.
I predict it will put you in a frame of mind to be more open to new ideas and concepts — and to be more tolerant of your fellow human beings.
A NOTE TO READERS:
Have you had your DNA tested and learned something interesting about your family? If so, please contact our managing editor Barbara Ruben at (301) 949-9766 to help us with an upcoming story. Thank you!