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The Butterfly Effect in Our Minds

The "butterfly effect," is more technically known as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" in chaos theory. It refers to the idea that the flapping of a butterfly's wings could cause the slightest change in the wind or atmosphere (the initial conditions), which through a chain of events could result in major changes in the weather thousands of miles away. A weather system that moves slightly one way or the other, for example, could mean a rainy day or a continued drought for a particular town.

Another example comes from my time in the woods. I try to follow a map and use my compass, but if I head for a particular spot in the woods that is six miles away, and I'm six degrees off course, I'll miss the spot by a third of a mile! I get lost a lot, as a matter of fact, and "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" helps explain why.

In science fiction the butterfly effect is usually demonstrated through time travel. A man goes back in time and does something seemingly insignificant, like interrupting a couple about to meet. As a result, they don't marry, the child who would have been president isn't born, and when the man gets back to the present everything in the world has changed.

This idea explains the difficulty of predicting outcomes of complex systems beyond a certain amount of time. The weather, for example, can't be accurately predicted two weeks ahead. Life itself is equally unpredictable, no matter how well we plan. A chance meeting with someone could change everything.

But what does this have to do with our thought processes? It is a good metaphor for how easy it is for our thinking to go this way or that. Just replace "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," with "sensitive dependence on initial premises, experiences and thoughts."

The Butterfly Effect on Ideas

This unpredictability of the course our thoughts can be a good thing for creative ideas. Two people who start with the same goal - let's say to create a new kind of less expensive college - will have radically different ideas in the end. This is true even if they start with the roughly the same knowledge, because each will have some hidden assumptions and premises that will make for slightly different ideas. These slightly different initial conditions can result in radically different ideas in the end.

We want this in the creative process. Ask twenty computers to solve a complex problem and you'll likely get twenty identical results. But give twenty humans the same problem to work on and you'll get some very different solutions. More solutions in general means a higher probability of a really good solution. (This is true only in a general sense, but for example, if you wanted a book to read would you rather go to a bookstore with ten thousand books or a store with just one?)

That's great for creative thinking. The differences in individual minds, whether slight or great, result in many unique and potentially useful ideas. But what about the butterfly effect on more analytical thinking? That's a problem.

This is most obvious in the hard sciences. If you start with the premise that the numerical value of pi is 4.13 instead of 3.14, any calculations you do involving pi will be incorrect. Even worse, anything that those calculations are used for may fail. If you're figuring the weight-carrying capacity for the flotation tubes on a pontoon boat, for example, the result might be a boat that sinks.

That's an unlikely scenario, but differing results due to dependence on initial premises, assumptions and thoughts is common in other areas. For example, suppose a manager of one restaurant starts with the idea that employees are best motivated by fear and punishment, while the manager of another restaurant thinks that rewards and praise are a better idea. These initial ideas will certainly affect each overall management plan, and one will have better results than the other.

But it gets more subtle than this. Suppose two people believe that humans have individual rights and that a government's job is to protect them. They seem to start at the same point with their thinking, so one would guess that they would support the same kind of political system. However, the "initial conditions" of thought are never really identical. In this case, the two people might have slightly different definitions of "individual rights," and different ideas on what a government should be allowed to do to protect them.

There's an important point here. No matter how logical your thinking is, an equally logical person can have a differing opinion or belief on almost any matter. No matter how many premises you agree on, your definitions and the connotations that words have for you will mean that you're actually starting from different places.

Words don't (and can't) have unchanging definitive meanings like numbers. Add to this fact the idea of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," and you can see how easy it is to stray far from the truth or the best analysis of a matter. We can strive to better define words, and do a better job reasoning, but we need to also remember the limitations of words and logic. You can start with the facts and a good mind, but if you are off in your aim by a few degrees, you'll be far from the truth at some point in your reasoning. This butterfly effect should be kept in mind.

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