Open Your Mind

Open Your Mind

Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow helps you connect to your right brain to gain access to breakthrough thinking.

Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains science to laypeople through engaging stories, wit and humor. He draws upon decades of brain science to explain creativity – what inhibits it, what encourages it and what sustains it. Mlodinow provides specific, practical guidance to help you loosen up and let ideas flow more freely.

Think Unconventionally

The speed of change and the communication tools available today demand creative thinking. Beyond linear, analytical thinking – a top-down, hierarchical process – you must nurture and practice elastic thinking. This lets you integrate disparate knowledge, contextualize your experience and arrive at creative solutions.


Neophilia – the love of novelty and the new – may have saved humanity about 130,000 years ago during great climate upheavals. The few hundred who left familiar surroundings and sought new places survived and everyone today shares their genes. Adolescents tend toward the risk-loving end of the scale, and adults fall in the middle. 

Analytical or Elastic

You think when you consciously solve problems. But people mostly operate on autopilot, and their actions and decisions follow scripts. Mindfulness helps you recognize when your scripts fail and you must think deliberately.

Elastic thinking is tailored to integrating diverse information, solving riddles and finding new approaches to challenging problems.Leonard Mlodinow

Analytical and linear thinking can solve problems requiring logic and planning more effectively than your scripts can solve them. Beyond that lies elastic thinking, which relies on emotion, creativity and lateral thinking.


You store thousands of concepts in your brain within clusters of so-called concept neurons. You have a concept neuron cluster for your grandmother, another for various famous people and another for a chair.

IBM’s Deep Blue chess-playing computer could consider one billion alternatives for every move world champion Gary Kasparov considered in their 1977 match. Still, Kasparov nearly defeated Deep Blue. This demonstrates the power of thinking in concepts and patterns. Thinking top-down – logically, structured, step-by-step – and creatively – bubbling up ideas from the bottom – generates entirely new ideas.

Do Mindless Things

Most people find it difficult to see past the paradigms they already know in order to achieve breakthrough thinking.

When you engage in thoughtful activity, you seek familiar patterns and may fail to make new associations among what you already know. Though 75% of your neurons work on connections and associations, they only do so when your brain enters its default state: when you stop doing anything requiring thought. A peaceful walk in nature, lying on the couch daydreaming or taking a shower can fuel your default state. Pause to allow your “association neurons” to improve your creativity and ability to innovate. Do mindless things more often.

Your Consciousness

The hemispheres of your brain – right and left – largely work independently. The left handles logic, planning and language; the right operates more conceptually and creatively. The hemispheres do connect.

When you are not focused on some task – for example, when you are doing something mindless, like driving – that’s when your mind is most free to roam. (neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreasen)

Oftentimes, when you seek a breakthrough insight, you struggle because you lead with your left brain. Relax your mind while pursuing your insight to engage your right brain.

Experts, for example, often can’t or won’t see past their perceived beliefs and knowledge to accept the obvious. For organizations, a diverse and inclusive workforce can provide the necessary discomfort level to prevent people from defending their frozen thinking.


Your brain filters almost everything and allows only what it considers the most important and salient information into your conscious mind. This prevents insanity, but sometimes also fends off desirable creative ideas. 

The reward system initiates your feelings of pleasure and dopamine carries those signals.Leonard Mlodinow

Your lateral prefrontal cortex acts as your primary filtering tool. It helps you focus on the most practical, promising solutions by blocking crazy ideas, but it suppresses elastic thinking. Scientists can suppress lateral prefrontal cortex activity by using transcranial stimulation techniques to send electric pulses to parts of the brain. When they do, they observed that adults score far higher on tests of creative problem-solving. The same thing happens in a patient who suffers a stroke that damages that part of the brain and in children whose lateral prefrontal cortexes haven’t yet fully formed.

The higher you score on the eccentricity scale, the easier you probably find it to block your filters and cognitive inhibitions in order to let ideas flow. Famous oddballs, including electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla and Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John Nash bordered on or suffered from schizophrenia. However, if you have lower than normal lateral prefrontal cortex activity as Tesla and Nash did, you might enjoy success in today’s disruptive world. For everyone else, relaxing the mind, fighting inhibitions and trying to think more like a child can help block the mind’s filters.

Elastic and Logical

Learn to turn off your cognitive inhibitors to think creatively; then switch them back on to achieve focus and morph your ideas into something useful.

If you possess a too-domineering lateral prefrontal cortex, marijuana, psychedelics and other pharmaceutical approaches can help you relax. Get the dosage right, or you will become so uninhibited your ideas will be worthless.

Our brains reward original and artistic thinking because those skills are important to any animal’s ability to respond to change and unpredictability.Leonard Mlodinow

Positive thinking extends life and enables elastic thinking. Everyone creates differently. Find your best conditions for creativity, including place, time and ambient noise level.


For a theoretical physicist, Mlodinow is a great wit, with a sardonic sense of humor and a lack of respect for human nature that makes him, at times, inspiring. He’s unafraid to venture slightly out of the box, as when he recommends marijuana to ease your mind. Yet he consistently returns to calm, rational diagramming of the brain’s functions to help you connect to your underused right hemisphere. You can reduce Mlodinow’s theme to: Relax and let your brain run free. In these stressful times, that’s sound advice.

Leonard Mlodinow, PhD, also wrote The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal.

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