This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking - by John Brockman

Shorthand abstractions (SHAs) are concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates. "Market," "placebo," "random sample," and "naturalistic fallacy" are a few examples. The idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk, which can be used as an element in thinking and in debate.

The Mediocrity Principle

The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren't special. The universe does not revolve around you; this planet isn't privileged in any unique way; your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny; your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate; and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws--laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit--given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident.

The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today's theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. The idea behind the meta-induction is that all of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong. If we can add that idea to our cognitive toolkit, we will be better able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict our own. We will be better able to pay attention to counterevidence--those anomalous bits of data that make our picture of the world a little weirder, more mysterious, less clean, less done. And we will be able to hold our own beliefs a bit more humbly, in the happy knowledge that better ideas are almost certainly on the way.

Failure Liberates Success

Failure is not something to be avoided but something to be cultivated. You should aim for success while being prepared to learn from a series of failures. More so, you should carefully but deliberately press your successful investigations or accomplishments to the point where they break, flop, stall, crash, or fail.

Cognitive Load

The amount of information entering our consciousness at any instant is referred to as our cognitive load. When our cognitive load exceeds the capacity of our working memory, our intellectual abilities take a hit. Information zips into and out of our mind so quickly that we never gain a good mental grip on it. The information vanishes before we've had an opportunity to transfer it into our long-term memory and weave it into knowledge. We remember less, and our ability to think critically and conceptually weakens. An overloaded working memory also tends to increase our distractedness. When you're engaged in a particularly important or complicated intellectual task, or when you simply want to savor an experience or a conversation, it's best to turn the information faucet down to a trickle.


French for "handyman" or "do-it-yourselfer," this word has migrated into art and philosophy recently, and savants would do well tossing it into their cognitive toolbox. A bricoleur is a talented tinkerer, the sort who can build anything out of anything: whack off a left-over drain pipe, fasten a loop of tin roofing, dab on some paint, and presto, a mailbox. If one peers closely, all the parts are still there--still a piece of roofing, a piece of pipe--but now the assembly exceeds the sum of the parts and is useful in a different way. In letters, a bricoleur is viewed as an intellectual MacGyver, tacking bits of his heritage to subcultures about him for a new meaning-producing pastiche. With the quest for universal validity suspended, there is a pronounced freedom to assemble lives filled with meaning from the nearby and at-hand.

Path Dependence

"Path dependence" refers to the fact that often something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past but survived despite the eclipse of its justification, because, once it had been established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives. The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards.


If we continually exchange matter with the outside world, if our bodies are completely renewed every few years, and if each of us is a walking colony of trillions of largely symbiotic life-forms, exactly what is this self that we view as separate? You are not an isolated being. Metaphorically, to follow current bias and think of your body as a machine is not only inaccurate but destructive. Each of us is far more akin to a whirlpool, a brief, ever-shifting concentration of energy in a vast river that has been flowing for billions of years. The dividing line between self and other is, in many respects, arbitrary; the "cut" can be made at many places, depending on the metaphor of self that one adopts. We must learn to see ourselves not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven--selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life-forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travelers in the current of this ancient river. On a still more profound level, it enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as static "things" at all but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow.


Kakonomics (from the Greek, the economics of the worst) describes cases wherein people not only have the standard preference for receiving high-quality goods and delivering low-quality goods (the standard sucker's payoff) but actually prefer to deliver a low-quality product and receive a low-quality one: that is, they connive on a low-low exchange. Kakonomic worlds are worlds in which people not only live with one another's laxness but expect it: I trust you not to keep your promises in full because I want to be free not to keep mine and not to feel bad about it. What makes it an interesting and weird case is that in all kakonomic exchanges, the two parties seem to have a double deal: an official pact in which both declare their intention to exchange at a high-quality level, and a tacit accord whereby discounts are not only allowed but expected. Thus, nobody is free-riding: Kakonomics is regulated by a tacit social norm of discount on quality, a mutual acceptance of a mediocre outcome, satisfactory to both parties as long as they aver publicly that the exchange is in fact at a high-quality level.

The Einstellung Effect

The Einstellung effect is more pervasive than its name suggests. We constantly experience it when trying to solve a problem by pursuing solutions that have worked for us in the past, instead of evaluating and addressing the new problem on its own terms. Thus, whereas we may eventually solve the problem, we may be wasting an opportunity to do so in a more rapid, effective, and resourceful manner. Familiar solutions may not be optimal. Recent research into the occurrences of the Einstellung effect in chess players suggests that it tends to be less prominent once they reach a certain level of mastery; they get a better grasp of the risks associated with pursuing solutions that look familiar, and they avoid acting on "autopilot."

Homo sensus sapiens: The Animal That Feels and Reasons

Examples abound in which such automatic emotional responses as ambition, anger, or anxiety overcome rationality. Those responses keep assaulting us, like uncontrollable forces of nature--like storms, or earthquakes. Only strict training enables us to dominate our instincts. For most of us, the admonition "Don't panic" works only when we're not panicking. Most of us should be defined as beings moved initially by instincts, empathy, and automatic responses resulting from our perceptions, instead of by sophisticated plans and arguments.