Thinking Our Way Out of the Apocalypse

Jonah Lehrer opened the 2010 Illahee Lectures on Power and Change advocating that we use our brains more effectively to stave off global collapse, or at least avoid mopping the kitchen floor.  If we’re going to change we need to change our minds, and to do that we need to understand our brains.

There are all sorts of rational actions we can take to change course toward a more sustainable future.  Problem is, we make decisions with a mix of emotion and rationality, depending on context.  We’re more charitable when an appeal is personal rather than fact-based. We buy Coke rather than Pepsi, despite the identical taste, because Coke’s marketing makes us feel better. We fail to contribute to retirement plans at a rational level, even though we know we should.  Scale this temporal discounting up to the global level, and you get our current approach to climate change: we’ll deal with it in a little while. But there are “nudges” we can give ourselves to encourage more rational behavior, like the “Start Saving Pretty Soon” retirement plan pioneered in Chicago.

In addition to thinking more about how we think, we may not be asking the right questions in the first place. For example Proctor & Gamble’s R&D division spent millions of dollars on a new and improved mopping soap, which was an utter failure, until an outside consulting group realized through hundreds of hours of hidden video, that mopping was the worst way of cleaning a floor.  Long story short: The Swiffer.

The Swiffer story demonstrates the benefit of being an outsider.  Being off to the side of a problem allows a novel perspective. Would Einstein have done his groundbreaking work if he had been a comfortable tenured professor at a major German research university? Research has shown that we solve puzzles at a higher rate when we’ve been told a distant puzzle-master, rather than a local one created them.  Interdisciplinary teams often solve problems faster than homogenous groups of experts.   The former R&D director of Eli Lily used this idea to outsource innovation with the web site,

“Wicked problems” like climate change and floor mopping likely require “a-ha” moments, which have two defining characteristics: the solution seems to come out of the blue, and it is immediately convincing.  Neuroscientists have discovered these ideas don’t come out of nowhere, they just seem that way because they are masked by a cluttered brain, and revealed when the signal breaks through in moments of neural calm. Sliding people into an MRI, scientists can even predict when people are about to solve a problem, as the subjects enter a state of relaxation, characterized by heightened alpha waves.

There’s good news here: we can actually learn to enter these states. And even better news, there are short cuts: take a warm shower, play ping pong, bring a note pad to the beach, take a walk in the woods.

Now get back to work.

More on Jonah Lehrer at

More on your brain at OHSU’s Brain Awareness Lecture Series


One response to “Thinking Our Way Out of the Apocalypse

  1. Pingback: POWER & CHANGE: A shout-out for Portland’s ILLAHEE; a forum,lecture series + Blog for Transformational change agents (and the curious!) « Walt Roberts Explores…·

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