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
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
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
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.