Mental Representations: The Art of Finding the Elephant

In 1501, the Church of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a marble statue of David the Biblical shepherd boy. Because the statue was to be placed on a hill and viewed from below, it needed to be about thirteen and a half feet tall—roughly twice life-size.

Proportionally, this created some challenges, but to make it an even greater test of ingenuity, the marble Michelangelo had to work with was not pristine. It was a leftover from an unfinished 1464 sculpture by another artist.

Clearly, Michelangelo had his work cut out for him. At this point, the artist was only in his twenties, but he had already made a name for himself with his Pieta in Rome. More to the point, he had spent so much time and concentration honing his skills that even working with another sculptor’s scraps, he was able to free the David from his marble prison.

At first read, this might sound like a nice metaphor about art emerging from nature, but it’s at the critical mass of something noted scholar Anders Ericsson outlines in his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. According to Ericsson, what set Michelangelo apart from the competition was not just his raw talent or the practice hours he’d logged; it was what Ericsson calls “mental representation.” Ericsson writes that true experts have developed the uncanny ability to dream up an idea and reproduce it in the real world, down to the most minute details.

When someone like Michelangelo comes face to face with a marble block, their goal isn’t just to carve out a generalized form; they are able to aim for an incredibly specific image—say, a shepherd boy waiting to vanquish his oversized rival.

Throughout my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct some informal sculpting experiments of my own. Sometimes, I will give the adults in my seminars ten minutes, some play-dough, and instructions to make a fist-sized elephant. None of my subjects have any formal training in the arts. They generally begin by producing the necessary elephant parts, which includes four legs, a tail, a trunk, tusks, floppy ears, and so on. Once the parts are formed, they tend to assemble their sculpture like a puzzle. The result is a crude, albeit recognizable, rendering of an elephant.

However, giving them more time does not tend to produce a better elephant. The deadline is not the issue. It seems they either lack an internal picture of what an elephant truly looks like, or the hand-eye coordination to translate that picture to play-dough—or both.

Ericsson says that hyper-nuanced specificity, a note-for-note model of the exact goal is the X factor in deliberate practice. People who successfully perform the type of practice that leads to real improvement start with a crystalline vision of the end product. Like Michelangelo, they sit down to work already seeing the David in the stone, or the elephant in the play-dough. It’s not some stylized, cartoon like notion of body parts; they envision everything down to the veins in the bicep or the barklike skin of the elephant’s hindquarters.

Once you can conceptualize your end result, you can develop a systematic strategy for getting there, knocking out the steps necessary to bring it to fruition.

The problem for novices is that they often haven’t acquired the knowledge to imagine that perfect prototype yet. Do I really understand precisely how my golf swing should look and feel, or how this Beethoven sonata should sound, or how the baseball should appear as it leaves the pitcher’s hand? Ericsson’s research suggests that the novices who do possess better mental representations tend to produce faster and more accurate work.

For instance, Ericsson posits, in sport, mental representation allows for a more refined level of pattern recognition. It’s not that a professional baseball player’s reflexes are necessarily faster than yours or mine, but a subtle change in the pitcher’s wrist prepares them to move into a better hitting position.

This heightened sense of anticipation is the winning formula for expertise in everything from chess to playing the piano. It’s the essential hack for expertise. True effective practice is not just about performing the same rote actions again and again; what really pays off is developing a deeper understanding of the domain-specific mechanics.

Ericsson says that both the quarterback who spends countless hours watching game films and the chess player who endlessly studies past matches with grandmasters are wiring up a vast library of patterns that their brains can then run like subconscious algorithms when competition heats up.

Not having a wholly accurate, detailed mental representation is a little like having a general idea how to get from the east coast to the west coast, but not knowing the city you want, let alone the street address. And a hazily defined goal or incomplete pattern recognition leads to mistakes, frustration, and frequently some very odd-looking play-dough elephants.

Heroes and Patients: Rage vs. Obsession

Across a wide variety of domains, people who have achieved expertise share a common trait. In fact, this one factor might lie at the very epicenter of behavioral control. It’s called ‘the rage to master”—the relentless pursuit of knowledge or skill, in the face of all other distraction.

You can see the results in everything from Steve Curry’s three-point shooting to Meryl Streep’s acting to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s command over the blues guitar. In the latter case, Vaughan’s quest for mastery included supergluing his fingertips so that he could keep playing after he’d bloodied his fingers from practicing the same riff over and over again.

 The flip side of the coin is another, less polite word: obsession. In clinical psychology, obsessions are something that people seek help to overcome. There’s even an official diagnosis for people who struggle with their fixations: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

If you have OCD, you might feel a nigh uncontrollable urge to wash your hands after any human contact. Perhaps you’re driven to count each and every floor tile as you walk the halls of your workplace. Or maybe you find yourself unable to shake certain alarming repetitive thoughts. People with OCD experience a wide spectrum of reactions from other people, from empathy on one hand, to pity, disdain, and ridicule on the other.

In our society, someone scrubbing their hands after every handshake has a problem, but someone practicing their three-point shooting into the wee hours of the morning is a potential hero. It seems that the value of obsession, that inner drive to direct all of one’s focus to one particular goal, is a currency dictated almost entirely by convention. Is the need to stand behind a line and hurl a small sphere through a metal hoop really any more important than the need to track all 286 hallway floor tiles of your office?

There may be some benefits to picking up on details other people don’t notice. But a much larger chorus of season ticket holders and ESPN viewers would argue that three-point shooting has far greater benefits, and is worth paying money to witness. After all, I can’t think of a single hand washing or tile counting contest that draws anything near the viewership of an NBA playoff game, even during a crummy year.

The rage to master is usually viewed as an out-of-the-ordinary gift from the genetic gods, often lumped in with words like “genius.” Obsessions are seen as out-of-the-ordinary peculiar behaviors, more often lumped in with phrases like “warning sign” and “clinical help.” What’s the real distinction? That depends entirely on how you keep count.

The Three Things Every Leader Needs

What is a leader? The simplest and perhaps most literal definition is “someone with followers.” But the presence of followers alone doesn’t signify that you’re any good at the act of leadership. History is littered with men and women who blithely led others straight into disaster.

Great leaders do three things that set them apart.

First of all, they start with a growth mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. This is far more than a simple positive attitude. Positive thinking alone can lend situations an undeserved—even dangerous—rosy cast, verging into denial. Growth mindset, which holds that improvement is made possible through honest self-assessment and hard work, encourages people to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.

Dave Guy, who plays trumpet alongside The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on the Tonight Show, is one of the foremost trumpeters alive. Early in his career, he made it his goal to learn how to play in as many different genres as he could—blues, jazz, soul, funk. As a young guy coming chiefly from the hip-hop scene, this meant putting himself in some uncomfortable situations, playing far out of his comfort zone. Yet this growth mindset allowed him to assimilate a vast array of styles, giving him an impressive palette of sounds and catapulting him into the top tier of trumpeting.

Great leaders also follow a strategy. The best-selling novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Irving says in the introduction to his book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, that his habit is to write the last sentence of a new project first. Neuroscientists might call this an example of scaffolding—a problem-solving technique which begins by identifying the goal and then filling in the gaps along the way, always keeping one’s eyes on the prize. (And a growth mindset strategist will be careful to check any plan for familiar flaws, building on their previous lessons learned.)

Of course, even the most brilliant strategy is just so much scrap paper unless it can be put into practice. The third element of great leadership is implementation. Every project requires changing current habits to accommodate the new idea, and that often requires an element of sacrifice. Sometimes this is a minor issue; frequently, it is not. Much like Newton’s Law, which states that a body at rest will tend to stay at rest, humans are designed to conserve energy. This default to stasis means we are far more likely to cling to old habits, even if innovation would make our lives better. A good leader is willing to shepherd a key idea through the entire process, devoting time and resources to ensure that everyone fully understands the new system.

Great leadership is not just about having people behind you; it’s about where you’re headed and how you intend to get there. Something our current presidential candidates might want to keep in mind…

The Pros and Cons of Positive Thinking

What’s the best way to gear up for a new habit? There are two common approaches. One is to imagine the positive outcome of solving a given problem. The other is to ponder what about your current situation makes you unhappy and what the solution to your problem might look like.

Gabriele Oettingen of New York University decided to test these ideas against each other. She ran an experiment in which she divided her subjects into three groups and gave them the same problem. The first group was told to start by indulging themselves, fantasizing about having solved it. The second group was told to dwell on the negative consequences of not solving the problem.

The last group, however, was told to do both: to envision the satisfaction of resolving the problem, then to focus on the harm done by not resolving it. Finally, they were to contrast their imagined positive outcome with the current negative reality.

It turned out that when expectations of success were high, the third group performed best. However, when expectations of success were very low, this same group invested less in planning and backed away from taking responsibility for the outcome.

Oettingen theorized that, as is often the case in business and life, people tend to do a cost-benefit analysis of potential outcomes and gear their actions accordingly. It seems they operate under the same principles when deciding how much energy to devote to building a new habit.

Motivation is a necessary force, spurring you forward towards any goal. Countless books and articles tout the benefit of positive thinking as a catalyst, but in Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking, she notes that research suggests this only takes you so far. It’s true that fantasizing about achieving a goal can lower blood pressure, compelling us into a state sometimes associated with the positive effects of meditation. Nobody is arguing that daydreaming doesn’t feel good.

But here is where we get into dangerous, and potentially counterproductive, territory. The brain is so good at daydreaming that it can fool itself, removing urgency because on some level it believes you have already crossed that finish line. Dream too much and you can find yourself postponing the journey indefinitely.

This isn’t to say we should chuck out wishful thinking altogether. Oettingen writes that it can be a useful tool, provided you add a few more steps to the process. She’s even created a mnemonic device: WOOP.

W stands for wishful thinking, which, as we’ve explained, is a useful starting point. Before you start in on a new habit, you want to get excited, to get the adrenalin and dopamine flowing.

O is for outcomes. Oettingen believes that, beyond vague dreams of excellence, a clearly defined goal requires specifics. The greater the specificity, the easier it will be to develop a concrete plan for coding in a new habit. Wanting to become a long-distance runner is one thing; aiming to compete in a certain marathon on a certain date—and following a marathon training plan to get you there—is quite another.

The next O stands for obstacles. Here is the all-important reality check: by anticipating setbacks, you can gauge the likelihood of success and get a jump on overcoming issues as they arise in your quest to maintain that habit.

Taken together, the WOO of WOOP brings you to what Oettingen calls “mental contrasting”—honestly examining the nuts and bolts of what ABC Sports used to call “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

P is for plan, or “implementation intention” as Oettingen puts it. The two main ingredients are specifics and an if-then statement: if I get the urge to watch TV, then I’ll go for a short walk before I tackle my writing assignment. The key is to be detailed and yet general enough that you can easily initiate the new behavior.

This approach helps you thwart potentially habit-crushing distractions, sustain motivation, and trigger the desired action. If I don’t feel like jogging this morning, then I’ll listen to some upbeat rock for a few minutes to get myself pumped up before I hit the pavement.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to link implementation intentions to a particular time of day (If it’s six in the morning, then I’ll start jogging). This constricts you from starting earlier and, should the clock tick over to 6:02, gives you permission to wait until tomorrow, handing the baton off once again to Future Self.

If-then statements dovetail beautifully into JB Fogg’s “tiny habits” philosophy: If I’m brushing my teeth, then I’ll floss afterwards. It formalizes and helps crystallize the intended behavior. 

You can also try out some if-then-then statements, piggybacking multiple actions on your “if”: If I enter the weight lifting room of the gym, then I’ll do leg lifts, bench presses, and pull-ups.

 Good luck!

The Power of Distractibility

Do you experience difficulty in filtering interruptions out of everyday life? Do outside forces—sirens, a co-worker chewing loudly in the next cubicle over, the smell of cologne in a packed elevator, the roar of the crowd, or the buzz of an incoming email—make you feel as if you are constantly under assault?

No, this is not an ad for some new concentration wonder drug. Many of us suffer from the inability to stay focused. There’s even a name for it: reduced latent inhibition. It’s a phrase that sounds pretty serious. As you read this, maybe you’re starting to feel guilty, worrying that your life may be negatively affected by these rapidly pingponging thoughts. What if it interferes with your ability to get things done, to think complex thoughts and make contributions to the world?

It’s true that diminished focus might be a negative net result of heightened sensory awareness, but don’t despair. Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson and her team discovered something unusual when they looked at faculty members known for their creative prowess. The best of the best, the researchers found, were seven times more likely to have noticeable levels of reduced latent inhibition.

How could vulnerability to distraction lead to a greater creative output?

 Rather than a detriment, researcher Darya Zibeline of Northwestern University says that having a “leaky” sensory filter—a brain that struggles to filter irrelevant information from the environment—is linked with higher levels of creativity because these people simply process more information than their better-focused counterparts. And the more information a person can process, the wider their set of associative connections, which leads to a greater possibility of novel solutions.

History is rife with examples of well-known creative thinkers who suffered from easy distractibility. Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka all reportedly had a hypersensitivity to sound, to the point where something as simple as a loud ticking clock could derail their thinking. But the flip side is that they were more likely to pick up on the linkage of everyday experience and its ties to more powerful ideas. After all, a young Darwin uncovered the connection between breeding livestock and the history of evolution—one that seemed to elude virtually everyone else at the time.

So the next time someone points out your lack of focus, remind them that you are simply living a more meaningful life, taking in more of the world’s beauty, and unearthing the hidden connections everywhere around you.

(Assuming you’ve paid attention long enough to read this far.)

Remix Culture, Revisited

Where do great ideas come from?

Often, the answer is “other great ideas, sort of mashed together.”

The term “remix culture” was coined after the invention of technologies that made hiphop possible: literally sampling pre-existing recordings. Sugarhill Gang’s landmark “Rapper’s Delight” samples the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times,” a riff which has since been sampled dozens of times, by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Will Smith to Daft Punk.

Of course, the concept of using someone else’s work to make something new has been around since nearly the dawn of music. In his classic Folk Songs of America, historian Alan Lomax takes a moment to defend “cowboy music” from “book-learned folklorists” who at the time alleged that it didn’t count as a true folk movement, since so many of the songs were reworkings of older ballads.

“To my mind these critics have merely pointed to the fact that the West was a cultural melting pot,” Lomax wrote in 1960. “…That this evocative and self-consistent body of oral literature could have been created in thirty or forty years (for the open range period lasted only from 1865 to 1900) and under constantly changing conditions, is a marvelous example of how quickly a folk culture can grow up when it is needed.”

These days, remixing extends well beyond rewriting a Maine lumberjack anthem to be about herding cattle on the Trail of the Buffalo. “Remix culture” is now perpetuated by open source image manipulation software, along with the widespread availability of sound and video editing. It is easier than ever to take one cultural object and turn it into something else. Essentially, technology has democratized the remix.

As creativity researcher Kirby Ferguson reports, hardcore rock aficionados sometimes dismiss Led Zeppelin as “rip-off artists” because many of their songs contain parts that seem wholesale lifted from old blues standards, like Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home.” “Stairway to Heaven” steals its opening licks from the band Spirit and their song “Taurus.” This was pretty common at the time; a lot of rock bands covered other people’s stuff. Ferguson suggests that perhaps Zeppelin’s real sin was not changing the songs enough, and neglecting to credit the original writers.

In fact, Ferguson makes the case that most entertainment is a kind of legal remix. Genres like horror, action, or romantic comedy can only exist because creatives have borrowed from each other to create a commonly understood palette of ingredients, from jump scares to car chases to meet-cutes. This isn’t even getting into the number of films each year that are direct remakes, sequels, or adaptations of pre-existing stories (I’m looking at you, superhero movies).

Ferguson vividly demonstrates how even game-changers like George Lucas weren’t working from scratch. The iconic Star Wars seemed to invent a new genre out of whole cloth, but in fact much of its power comes from the bafflingly wide assortment of older ideas Lucas threw together, from old Flash Gordon flicks to Westerns to Joseph Campbell’s philosophies. In fact, the original trilogy includes many shot-for-shot copies of scenes from other films, including Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies. (Luke’s white tunic in the first Star Wars is familiar to any young martial arts student.)

Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for Best Actor in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Much like Star Wars, the film includes some striking visual parallels to another director’s work, namely legendary Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. An intrepid viewer put together a supercut of those moments here. However, unlike perhaps Led Zeppelin, Iñárritu openly admits to Tarkovsky’s influence, among others.

The key to novel recombination is making surprising new connections across a wide variety of disciplines. In Hamilton, composer Lin Manuel-Miranda captures the machismo and illicit danger of eighteenth century dueling with “The Ten Duel Commandments,” an obvious homage to “Ten Crack Commandments” from rapper Biggie Smalls. The juxtaposition is jarring and uncomfortable, and it works.

When viewed through the lens of the remix, it becomes apparent just how much of how lives consist of recombination, from our conversations to the clothes we wear. We are constantly putting a new spin on the same old. That’s not necessarily good or bad—it’s a mixed bag. Which is to say, a sort of remix in its own right.

Bright Lights, Big Ideas

Here’s one way in which all that talk about big-city glamor may be backed up by fact. Statistically, large cities yield a far higher number of patents and inventions than towns or suburbs. At first glance, there may seem to be an obvious reason: a higher headcount means a higher total output. Surely, the two would increase proportionally. However, according to theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, the truth is more complicated—and more interesting.

According to Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, West’s research showed “the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.” In other words, it wasn’t just an overall rise in creativity, but a rise among individuals as well.

So, what’s going on? Researchers from MIT Media Laboratory’s Human Dynamics Lab think they know the answer. Their work indicates that greater population density leads to higher rates of face-to-face interaction. And face-to-face interaction means a greater chance of good ideas becoming contagious.

When novel thinkers congregate in one area, they have the possibility of trading, spreading, and acquiring new ideas every time they make a morning coffee run. They could encounter a colleague. They could encounter a rival. They could encounter a friend of a friend, working in a somewhat adjacent field, whose observations could spark an entirely new train of thought.

When we talk about creativity in the abstract, it can sound almost like witchcraft. On some level, it might feel anticlimactic to learn that everything could come down to something as simple as conversations. But when you consider how often innovation lies at the surprising intersection of two seemingly disparate ideas, you being to understand the potential power of face-to-face interaction.

What is the future of this approach? As smartphone use continues to rise, will those one-on-one moments erode? The long-term effect on creativity is yet to be understood. For now, it seems that if you want to work on big ideas, a city zip code might give you a leg up.

Binary Selection and the Tyranny of “Good, Better, Best”

Last time you pulled up to a gas pump, you had to make a choice. That choice consisted of 87% with ethanol, Regular, or Premium. It’s a choice you’ve made thousands of times. In fact, far beyond the gas pump, you’re asked to make that very same kind of “good, better, best” decision over and over again, whether you’re picking airplane seats or breakfast cereal.

It seems to make sense: in a fast-changing world where the options seem to multiply every day, there is something comforting about “good, better, best” as an easy navigation tool. Your brain adapted so well to this strategy, it’s likely you don’t even think about it. It’s just another heuristic, just another way the brain conserves energy by employing a rule of thumb that spares you from thinking too hard. Why not bring it into the cereal aisle?

Marketers hit upon this tactic years ago. It seems like a hugely successful move for anyone who wants to take advantage of the brain’s natural tendency towards fuel conservation, or as it’s sometimes known, “laziness.”

There’s only one problem: your brain operates on a binary system. Like a laptop computer, it’s only designed to select between this or that. Some scientists believe this either/or system comes from harnessing our fight or flight mechanism for decision-making.

Couple that with the fact that your brain doesn’t have the RAM to scan many prospects simultaneously like Superman. In other words, when you are presented with a multiple choice situation, your brain can only sort the information by comparing just two options at a time, and then eliminating one. It repeats this simple strategy over and over again until you’ve worked your way through all the offerings before you.

This is precisely what optometrists do when you undergo the exam to determine the strength of your new lenses. “Can you see better through this or that?” they ask again and again as they shepherd you through a long string of binary choices. It’s amazingly efficient. From dozens and dozens of possibilities, you can find the right lens in a matter of minutes. Imagine the alternative, if instead they laid out twenty or thirty lenses on a table and asked you to determine which worked best for you. Think about the glucose your brain would expend trying to pull off that feat.

All of which, of course, brings us back to “good, better, best.” When your brain drops into that heuristic, a curious thing happens. Without deliberation, for many people the natural tendency is to think, ‘Well, I don’t want the worst one, and I don’t want the most expensive. Middle option it is.’ It feels like the savvy, responsible thing to do. “Good, better, best” automatically biases you towards “better.”

It’s called the “Goldilocks rule”: not too big, not too small, but just right. But what if the bargain bin option is actually of better quality? What if paying the extra money for the pricier version is worth it in the long run? When your brain slips into heuristic mode, it runs that bit of neural code without deliberation. That’s the beauty of it—and that’s also how it can get you into trouble.

Binary selection has been around since the dawn of humanity. There is something breathtakingly elegant about the brevity of this vs that. It doesn’t resign your decision-making to status quo; consciously using binary selection to weigh many choices will yield less biased results. Keep in mind: marketers have an agenda. Don’t be fooled by the “good, better, best” approach.

Better isn’t always best.

Falling Apples and the Rise of Domain Knowledge

What is the most practical method for generating creativity? Despite our growing understanding of those neural processes, that question haunts every scientist, writer, artist, filmmaker, athlete, inventor, and any other person hoping to make something great.

Much has been written about the connection between creativity and what’s called the default network: the mental mechanisms associated with mind wandering and daydreaming. The default network is the soup de jour. This might be because there is something inherently alluring about the idea of epiphany, that bolt-out-of-the-blue inspiration seen as the mind fruit of spontaneous genius.

What doesn’t get as much airtime is the role of domain knowledge—that is, the breadth and depth of your familiarity with a given field, including the contents of your associative memory and the sum total of your practice regime.

One of the best-known epiphany stories occurred around 1666 when Sir Isaac Newton was allegedly conked on the head by a falling apple, thus triggering a revelation on the nature of gravity. Here’s some slightly lesser-known context: by 1666, Newton was a master of Euclidean geometry, algebra, and Cartesian coordinates. Oh, also he’d invented calculus, which he needed so he could measure planetary orbits. “In other words,” writes Nancy C. Andreasen in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain,’ “Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration…”

Newton might not have been the first person to be beaned in the skull by an apple. But it’s possible he was the first person whose entire career had prepared him to fully grasp the principles behind the falling fruit.

Similarly, Einstein’s famous thought experiments were more than idle fancies; they were grounded in his expertise in physics. There’s a reason Darwin’s breakthroughs came in biology and not, say, dance. It’s the same reason Carole King’s creative flights of fancy were able to bring us “You’ve Got a Friend” in 1971; she had been playing the piano since she was four, and writing songs for thirteen years.

There’s no way around it: for true creative achievement, you need to do your homework. You need to log your hours.

Lin Manuel-Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton is the talk of Broadway, but composing it required seven years of drafting, revising, and exhaustive research—not to mention a lifelong immersion in hip hop and musical theater.

Having an enormous library of information and expertise helps you build out the novel connections between ideas that we see as creativity. It doesn’t guarantee that great works will certainly follow, but for those of us who enjoy the experience of trying to bring something new into the world, it appears restocking your brain’s memory is a prerequisite.

So was Steve Jobs really a creative genius, the visionary techno-wizard of Palo Alto who, with a wave of his hand summoned from thin air the Mac, iPhone, iPod, and iPad? Or is it more likely he built a powerful associate brain in a field he was passionate about, surrounded himself with like-minded experts, and lived out Daniel Kahneman’s formula for success (hard work + luck)?

This rewrite on the classic headline may not move as many papers. A bolt from the blue is much catchier than a bolt that sprang from decades of careful groundwork. But in the end, it doesn’t diminish what Jobs, or any other master of their domain, has brought us.

Einstein’s Thought Experiments, or, Cinema for the Mind

When he was in his early teens, Albert Einstein received a gift from a family friend: a series of illustrated science books with the catchy title of Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbucher (People’s Books on Natural Science), by Aaron Bernstein. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson quotes Einstein as having later described it as “a work which I read with breathless attention.”

In the first volume of Bernstein’s popular science series, he asked the reader to imagine a bullet shot through the window of a fast-moving train. Bernstein postulated that anyone examining the bullet’s exit on the opposite side of the train would conclude the bullet must have been shot at an angle.

Bernstein’s point was that, because the earth is hurtling through space, light would exhibit the same refracting properties going through a telescope lens as the bullet passing through the train windows. And that this outcome would always be the same regardless how fast the source of the light was traveling.

Bernstein wrote, “Since each kind of light proves to be exactly of the same speed, the law of the speed of light can well be called the most general of all nature’s laws.” (I think we can all agree Einstein went on to do a pretty good job chasing down this idea.)

In a later volume, Bernstein had his readers imagine the effects of traveling through space as a passenger on a wave of light. At sixteen, a young science nerd like Einstein was fascinated by these creative challenges. In retrospect, we can see the seeds of Einstein’s famous ‘thought experiments,’ where he meditated on complicated physics problems through striking visualizations.

This was partly out of necessity, given the limitations of turn of the century technologies. It was difficult to conduct literal experiments in the burgeoning field of physics prior to nuclear accelerators. Especially since manipulating a solar system ‘under lab conditions’ was and is a pretty tall order for even the brightest and most determined physicist.

Taking advantage of the basal ganglia’s ability to run simulations, and the brain’s inherent visual strengths (remember, 50% of brain activity appears to be devoted to decoding images), Einstein eventually found himself applying Bernstein’s approach to some of the toughest physics problems of his day.

In essence, this allowed Einstein to watch a movie version of the physics problem as it played out in his head. And the beauty of this technique was that he had the power to edit, readjust, and rerun the footage over and over as he sought to uncover the underlying principles of space and time. Before the days of particle accelerators and NASA telescopes, Einstein was already making use of the best tools nature had to offer.

There was, however, one small problem: his thought experiments might go off without a hitch inside his own mind, but he still had to demonstrate the results to the greater scientific community.

To prove one of the tenets of his Theory of General Relativity, that light bends when it passes near a very heavy body, Einstein used not a lab but a total solar eclipse. When the moon passes in front of the sun, the moon shields some of the sun’s intensity, allowing us to observe distant stars, and to measure their light for refraction. Luckily for Einstein, in May of 1919, English astronomer Arthur Eddington agreed to travel to the Island of Principe off the west coast of Africa to take telescopic photographs of stars during an upcoming eclipse.

From Einstein’s point of view, Eddington’s task couldn’t have been more simple: to demonstrate that starlight would be bent by the warped space around the sun’s mass. In reality, Eddington risked life and limb, and given the weather conditions, was barely able to snag the needed photographic evidence. But Eddington got the needed shots, and his subsequent calculations proved out Einstein’s theory and turned him into the intellectual rock star he still is today, nearly 100 years later.

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard asked Einstein to describe the essence of his thought experiments. Einstein replied with the following letter:

My Dear Colleague: 

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken. 

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. 

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. 

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will. 

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for. 

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned. 

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

In other words, it seems that Einstein’s thought experiments, or self-described ‘combinatory play,’ started with a concept and then proceeded to the mental movie adaptation, with subtitles as generally an afterthought. This was pretty much the winning Hollywood formula in the years before ‘talkies’ took over.

The difference? Einstein’s brand of ‘mind cinema’ has never ceased to amaze, even a century later.