The value and the beauty of thought experiments

Can you change the past?

Not in the physical realm, but in the realm of the mind - absolutely! That is the beauty and the value of thought experiments.

A thought experiment is the activity of posing hypothetical questions with the goal of exploring the potential consequences of the principle in question. They are useful in any domain, with the most common disciplines being philosophy, physics, computer science, and economics.

They force us to engage reason and critical thinking about causes and effects and can force us outside of our comfort zone.

Thought experiments allow us to break through the constraints of the real world to create other past, present and future worlds, imagining possible situations and the potential outcomes of various actions and decisions on them. They enable us to speculate about what might have happened prior to a specific event, or about what may happen subsequent to an event.

Thought experiments can improve your ability to:

- challenge the prevailing status quo

- predict the future; understand the past

- solve problems

- generate ideas

- facilitate decision making, choice, and strategy selection

- ensure the (future) avoidance of past failures

It is well-known that Albert Einstein used visualized thought experiments often in his work, such as when he pondered what the world would look like if you could travel on a beam of light.

Here is an example I often present to my keynote audiences. It comes from Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book, Decisive, and it’s called the vanishing options test. Imagine you are determining all possible options for an important decision your team has to make. Once you think you have identified all viable options, imagine that all of the options you are considering simply vanish. They are gone forever and cannot be used. Now what will you do?

This exercise of imagination tricks your brain into working harder - telling it there are more options out there and that you can find them by digging deeper.

Some thought experiments are antefactual speculations - we speculate about what might have happened prior to a specific, designated event. Others are postfactual, speculating about what may happen subsequent to (or consequent upon) a specific, designated event.

Two more things to consider about thought experiments:

1) Sometimes a thought experiment can create am immediate “A-ha!” moment, but often it takes more time before an answer, idea or breakthrough develops.

2) Thought experiments are often hard work, which may be why they are not often used. They can require a great deal of energy because you need to mentally create the world you are experimenting with.

Creating thought experiments to help in decision making and problem solving is a great way to get your brain thinking in different ways to generate unique ideas and better solutions.

Think well - live well.

- Steve Haffner, mind performance strategist

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