mindlabWhat’s a thought experiment?

It is the conscious mind at work. It’s is a processed reflection. (Ok, who made that phrase up… a processed reflection?). Anyway….

Wikipedia says that a thought experiment is a mental exercise that considers a hypothesis, theory or principle. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that a thought experiment is a device of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. (Schrodinger’s Cat is a pretty famous one.)

My cousin Scott, the Philosopher is full of them. One of Scott’s is ‘Would you expose a thief?” Sounds pretty simple, but then he throws in all these little twists and curves until you’re not sure about anything anymore. The thing that seemed obvious just isn’t as clear as you thought it was.

So, what do Thought Experiments have to do with Creativity?

Creativity is experimental. Curiosity, questions, assumptions, revelation, unfamiliar combinations … these are creativity’s raw material. But sometimes, engaging in that kind of thinking in ‘real’ life can feel risky.

Thought Experiments occupy the little lab in your brain, not ‘real’ life. You can explore and test ideas mentally without the risk of taking them to market.

These mental games also help strengthen the mind muscle. Practicing them keeps the wheels greased. Practicing them also helps you find your bravery.

One is more likely to produce meaningful creative output when they are willing to perceive truly, when the nature and quality of their thought process is high, and when they have the courage to introduce their ideas to the world. Thought Experiments help develop skill, breadth of vision, willingness, and courage.

  • Thought Experiments ask you to become conscious. We become more conscious of the contents of our belief system, self-identity, various assumptions we hold … our perceptions and perspectives. In the same way, we become more conscious of the people and world around us.
  • Thought Experiments give you practice in anticipating outcomes. As per above, Thought Experiments help us gain insight into human nature and how the  world works. That improves our ability to anticipate how that world will act in given circumstances.
  • Thought Experiments enable you to build the courage to ‘step outside your box’ perception-wise. Thought experiments are a game. We usually feel safer ‘playing with an idea’ if we know it’s just a game. Now, that’s not to say we won’t act on what we learn in a thought experiment. It just means we’ll be more conscious about it. And, consciousness about self and others can also led to courage.


→Start with a question or scenario: 

A good starting question might be “What if/would you?’ What if this gadget really could enable you to see through walls/would you use it to spy? What if you knew an earthquake would take place tomorrow/would you tell anyone? who? how many? What if there were a newly discovered city under the ocean located 100 miles south of Hawaii/would you go see it? What if there were non-human beings living there/would you still want to go?

→Scenarios add control and focus.

The scenarios are as unlimited as life itself. Are you intellectually adventurous? Check out these Top 10 Most Famous Thought Experiments. They have occupied the minds of some of our world’s greatest thinkers. Great names, too: The Trolly, The Ticking Time Bomb, Einstein’s Light Beam, and Galileo’s Gravity Experiment.

You can also search the internet for ‘thought experiment games’. Here’ s one for sports fans. Here’s one on trying to imagine the unimaginable (more accessible and interesting than it may sound…).

→Singles, Doubles, or Team Play?

Either, all. One can be very productive and entertained working alone.

It is also fun to work with others. Engage someone who asks really good questions. That annoying friend or co-worker who doesn’t ever just accept something at face value … they are perfect for thought experiments! Those friends who have experience or knowledge in an area you are exploring? Great additions.

→Technology or Live In Person?

Either. Consider your time. Some of the toughest thought experiments have been around for a thousand years! (Yes, people are still arguing with Aristotle.)

Your thought experiments may not last that long, but could still benefit from more time. Consider using email, a participatory blog, a message board or any other technology that allows the conversation to continue over time.

Then again, nothing adds to the fun like a deadline! People can be very productive when they know they have to get a handle on a concept in the next two hours. Call a meeting!


A stimulating atmosphere can help. Go outside. Go to the mall. Hold a group thought experiment in the car as you drive around town. Take it to the beach, the airport. Play a little Bach in the background, or Coldplay, or the Divining Drums of Lake Titicaca. Have salted chocolates. Bring out the toys. Pass out feathers, velvet, sand, pictures of outer space…inner space.

That said, don’t be pressured on this one. Lots of nerds engage in heavy thought experimenting sitting in a boring room with a computer and a carton of Little Debbies.

That said, Einstein apparently solved the final problem in his Theory of Relatively when he was staring out of a window watching a man wash a clock, so maybe just a little window…

And for group work …. There is something to be said for the way conversations unfold around a dinner table. I thank my parents. They turned, “What did you do in school today?” into regular dinner table explorations and thought experiments. I recommend it.

→Be Rigorous

This mean more than ‘be energetic’. Rigorous is a word scientists use for running a clean, thorough, balanced and truthful experiment. It typically involves rules of action and thinking. Here is more information. The bottom line is: be as truthful as possible, cover as many bases as possible, engage as few assumptions as possible, and prove it when possible. Don’t be a lazy thinker. Lazy thinkers lose power and come on … don’t be a dim bulb!

Now, my cousin Scott may read this and be discouraged with my less than rigorous use of the name Thought Experiments. My apologies, Scott. I’m just trying to get some play-thinking going here.

For the rest of you, I hope you get it that your brain is a great lab. It’s a wonderful place to experiment with ideas, and doing so will:

  • improve your thinking skills (curiosity, visioning, rigor),
  • expand your mind (gain the ability and courage to think outside your norm)
  • and, maybe, help you learn to play productively with others.

Now get in there and get busy. Here’s your little white coat….

© Christie James, 2011