The topics discussed in this book are ultimately well-covered elsewhere, so if you’re relatively knowledgeable in the areas of evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, the unconscious mind, and creative thinking, you’ll find little novelty here.
On the other hand, if you’re less knowledgeable in these areas, this is a great book to learn about them all. Mlodinow expertly synthesizes the research in these areas and covers the techniques you can use to enhance your creative thinking skills. It also acts as a great refresher and an interesting tour through the mind, particularly its capacity for analytical and creative thought.
Part 1 of the book addresses the concept of “neophilia,” or our inborn proclivity for novelty and change, which has deep evolutionary roots. Parts 2 and 3 largely address the differences between scripted or automatic behavior, analytical/logical thinking, and creative thinking, while part 4 discusses the techniques you can use to unlock your own creative potential.
Here are some of the key insights I took away from the book:
- Analytical or logical thinking is algorithm-based and largely devoid of emotion, whereas elastic (creative) thinking is driven by emotion and motivation. This is the reason why the threats of artificial intelligence are exaggerated; we can get computers to “think” analytically, based on algorithms, but we cannot get a computer to want to think or to enjoy thinking as motivation for setting its own goals and pursuing creative thought.
- Elastic thinking is associated with high levels of neophilia (love of novelty) and higher levels of schizotypy (tendency toward original thinking, sensing unusual connections or feelings, and nonconformist behavior), both of which can be cultivated.
- The main methods of cultivating elastic thinking include:
1. Mindfulness meditation to reduce the tendency to engage in automatic scripted behavior.
2. Intentionally shifting viewpoints to approach problems from different angles.
3. Challenging your most fundamental assumptions.
4. Allowing your unconscious mind to work on a problem by relaxing your analytical mind, through activities such as meditation, going for long walks, taking extended breaks, and sleeping on a problem.
5. Postponing your creative thinking to periods when you are less mentally alert and more fatigued (which inhibits the filtering capacity of your prefrontal cortex).
It’s in this area—actual creative thinking techniques—that the book seems to be lacking. While the book does a great job of summarizing research and explaining the underlying neuroscience, if you’re looking for specific techniques I would suggest any of the works by Michael Michalko. In particular, his book Thinkertoys includes dozens of techniques that can be used to generate new ideas and get you in the creative mindset.
In the end, Mlodinow addresses the topic of creativity in a very analytical way, offering no new ways of approaching the topic other than renaming creative thinking “elastic thinking.” That being said, I did enjoy the book and its anecdotes and Mlodinow is always a skillful and entertaining writer. And if you don’t already know that much about the topic, this book will provide a quick primer.