Do you know who or what Schrödinger’s cat is? 

You must have heard Sheldon Cooper use this term multiple times in the show The Big Bang Theory. Still doesn’t ring a bell? 

Schrödinger’s cat is a 1935 thought experiment devised by an Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. 

What is the Schrödinger’s cat experiment all about? Imagine a cat and place it in a sealed box with some poison and a small amount of radioactive material that would release the poison once it decayed. 

Because of quantum uncertainty, the radioactive device in the box has a 50% chance of killing the cat in the next hour. At the end of the hour, what do you think is the state of the cat? Is it dead, is it alive or is it both? 

Common sense tells us that the cat will either be alive or dead. However, Schrodinger pointed out that at the moment before the box is opened, the cat is equal parts dead and alive at the same time. Both possibilities would simultaneously exist until you open and look inside the box. 

This hypothetical scenario, however morbid it might seem, has been the subject of intense debate among physicists and philosophers since then. But thought experiments aren’t just a part of the rarefied world of philosophers and physicists. 

A thought experiment, like the Schrödinger’s cat experiment, is one of several mental models you can use to think creatively at work and in life. Before we get into thought experiments, let’s understand what a mental model is and why it’s useful. 

What Is Mental Model?

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains; so we use models, concepts and frameworks to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks. They are essentially hacks to help our minds simplify the world around us, especially in our workplaces. 

For instance, we use Google Maps to find our way around new places. The map is a model of the world on our screen. It tells us where a particular road leads to, without us ever having visited the place. 

When architects start designing a building, they don’t go and lay down the bricks to figure out what will and will not work. They work on a lot of blueprints before actually beginning work. In the same way you can use mental models to design a product or build a prototype, without ever having used the object yourself. 

Thought experiments are powerful mental models because they help us illustrate or investigate the consequences of a given action. 

How Does It Work?

You imagine a situation and think of various ways it could possibly play out. There is no limit to your imagination, you can imagine the most impossible and unlikeliest of scenarios. The idea is to speculate and examine endless possibilities in order to expand your thinking. 

From the ancient Greeks and Romans to Albert Einstein to Elon Musk, every great mind has made use of the thought experiment to expand the realm of their imagination. 

Einstein used thought experiments to arrive at some of his most influential discoveries. The most famous of these thought experiments was on a beam of light. What would happen if you could catch up to a beam of light as it moved, he asked himself? The answers led him down a different path toward time, which led to his theory of relativity.

If you think thought experiments are only meant for the greats, you are wrong. You too can make use of thought experiments to come up with innovative ideas personally and professionally. 

For instance, we are already in the middle of a pandemic. I know, no one really wants to be reminded of it over and over again. But think about it this way: the pandemic is constantly changing the way we live and work. What better time to use thought experiments than when we are cooped up in our homes?

How To Design A Thought Experiment

Let’s understand thought experiments with an example. Say you are a teacher working on an online teaching pedagogy for your university. 

Now you design a thought experiment that goes like this. 

Your students are no longer able to attend classes on-site given the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumer behavior has changed and students prefer online classes over live ones. 

Now you start thinking about how you want to design your online classes. How would you change strategies to adapt to this scenario? Your pedagogy could go down the following routes:

  • Reduce the number of people attending each class so that you can give each student individual attention

  • Use a mix of learning tools to increase student engagement

  • Make the teaching material mobile-friendly so that students can access it from anywhere

  • Provide real-time feedback

  • Create a virtual classroom environment by using apps that help students learn from each other

These are just a few examples to get you thinking. The possibilities are endless.  While you can’t find solutions to your problems immediately, you can surely start imagining them in this way. Who knows, you might stumble upon an idea that no one else has yet thought of. 

You could be the first person to use virtual reality to design your classroom or use artificial intelligence to serve your customers. The possibilities are endless, and you know it. 

The Importance Of Thought Experiments

Thought experiments let us imagine the impossible, evaluate the potential consequences of our actions, and re-examine history to make better decisions. Many disciplines, such as philosophy and physics, make use of thought experiments to examine what can be known. In doing so, they open up new avenues for inquiry and exploration.

Thought experiments continue to play a relevant role in our lives, not only in the realm of science and social science but also in the world of business. It is an important tool to hone that helps flex your thinking muscles. 

To learn more about mental models and how you can use them, do check out Harappa’s Thinking Critically course. It also has a section on how Elon Musk used the inversion mental model to build his aerospace company, SpaceX. Sign up now to learn more about mental models and how you can apply them to your life.

Chandrima Chatterjee is a Specialist with the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The Delhi School of Economics graduate also loves to read fiction and hopefully will write one someday.

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