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December 09, 2016 Friday 06:59:38 PM IST

Think laterally to generate creative options

Creative Living

From our very childhood we are trained to think and speak logically, ensuring that our words are intelligible and that our communication is effective. Intelligence of children is often measured against the clarity with which they make their points. Both parents and teachers are happy to see children developing in their logical skills. It is absolutely necessary too. But it may not sufficient according to the modern research! Research suggests that both linear/ logical thinking and lateral/creative thinking are equally important aspects in the training of a child. That alone ensures your child to be critical and creative. And the modern world belongs to the creative thinkers, who create and re-create it. If you want your child to be part of this movement, help him/her imbibe creativity skills. Lateral thinking is counted one of the important creativity skills.


What is linear/vertical thinking?


Linear/vertical thinking is perfectly logical thinking. It is causal thinking. In this paradigm, everything is interconnected with their respective causes and effects. Cause precedes the effect just like fire precedes smoke. Logical thinking builds upon existing thoughts, without questioning or challenging their presuppositions. It results in the depth of knowledge. It is founded on the best and right approach to tackle a problem, which validates the rightness of the procedures. It is analytical and sequential. It develops step-wise and one must ensure correctness of every step to ensure the rightness of the conclusion. Logical thinking cannot afford distractions. It rather blocks them. It excludes the irrelevant information for the sake of the relevant one. It defines everything sharply, giving no room for misty components. It follows the most likely path towards the truth and evaluates correctness of every step in relation to it. It considers itself as a finite process in search of the ultimate truth. The Great Greek Trio, namely, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are considered as fathers of linear thinking. They developed a culture of logical thinking in the West, which extends its influence to the class rooms of contemporary times. Clarity and distinction are the most important properties of linear thinking and hence it exerts perceivable influence on disciplines like mathematics and sciences. For example, 1+1 needs always be 2 in mathematics and sciences. Nobody asks the question, why? It seems an irrelevant question. However, it may not be so for a poet, who observes how two tributaries merge together and flow as a single river. For a poet, 1+1 may be just one-perhaps a little greater ONE. (In the language of Muhammad Bashir, one of the celebrated novelists of Malayalam literature, it is: “Immini Valiya Onnu”). So thinks a non-dualist (advaita) philosopher. For him, two apparently different realities are in fact aspects of the same truth. They are just one! For a management expert, who sees the possibility of synergy effects in the communion of two people, 1+1 is greater than 2. He defines synergy of two persons as something which generates effects more than the individual contributions. However, if we consider all our thinking in a day, more that 90% of it would comprise logical thinking or linear thinking. Usually people who think linearly are viewed as honest, mature and intelligent. And for success in many professions like solicitor, accountants, police, advocate and scientist, linear thinking is of absolute importance.


What is lateral/horizontal thinking?


The concept of lateral thinking bears the trade mark of Dr. Edward de Bono, a British psychologist and inspirational author. Hence we refer to the meaning defined by him. The term was first used in a book called “The Use of Lateral Thinking” (Jonathan Cape, London, 1967). In the course of time it was recognized as a new word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the final arbiter of the official British English Language. Dr. Bono gives a number of technical as well as descriptive definitions to lateral thinking.


Technical definitions


1. The first technical definition of lateral thinking conceives human brain as a self-organizing information system. Such systems posit a mathematical necessity of moving across the patterns to generate new options in thinking. Lateral thinking facilitates such movements across different mental patterns. The tools and programs of lateral thinking are designed to achieve such ‘lateral’ movement.


2. The second technical definition provides mathematical justification for creative thinking. According to Dr. Bono, in any self-organizing system there is a need to escape from a local optimum in order to move towards a more global optimum. Such movement is facilitated by lateral thinking. The techniques of lateral thinking, such as provocation, are designed to help that transition.


Descriptive definitions


1. Human experience often suggests that trying harder in the same direction may not be as useful as changing direction. This is especially true if one does not have guarantee over the veracity of the direction. Lateral thinking, not linear thinking, promotes changing directions of thinking to obtain global perspectives. In the words of Dr. Bono: “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”


2. Logical thinking is epitomized by the game of chess. You start with the given pieces and at any part of the game you carry on with the remaining pieces. However, chess game has only a faint resemblance to real life situations. We just assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries which need not necessarily be present. Lateral thinking tries not to presume the existence of such pre-conceptions. It is not equivalent to playing the game of life with the presumably given pieces. Rather, it starts the game with freshly defined pieces suitable to the life situations. In this way, lateral thinking challenges the prejudices and assumptions of life and conceives it anew. Thus lateral thinking engages mainly with the perceptional part of thinking, organizing the external world into pieces, which we are in a position to process, without completely forgoing the logic. The most stunning conclusion of Dr. Bono regarding creativity is that it is not just part of human nature; rather it can be nurtured like any other skill. It can be nurtured by proper training in challenging assumptions (e.g. by thinking outside the box), generating alternatives (even when you have an apparently satisfactory solution), suspended judgment, brainstorming, analogies, and random stimulation. In other words, creativity is not a gift for exceptionally genius; rather it is available for anybody, who takes time to practice the skills of lateral thinking. Dr. Bono went ahead to develop a large number of techniques, processes and programs to nurture lateral thinking skills, and hence creativity skills. He has a large following among top managers of Fortune500 companies, who ascribes their success to the procedures offered by Dr. Bono.


A Complementarity Principle


After an extensive research into the mental processes of creative minds, Prof. Robert Weisberg could not identify evidences to prove that lateral thinking is essentially necessary for creative disruptions. (“Creativity and Knowledge – a Challenge to Theories”, in Handbook of Creativity, ed Robert Sternberg, 1999). He analyzed Darwin’s notebooks on the development of his theory of evolution, Watson’s report of the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule, Picasso’s preliminary sketches for several of his most famous paintings, and Edison’s notebooks on the invention of the kinetoscope and found that all of them are sheer epitomes of linear thinking.


There are seldom traces of lateral thinking contained there! So it must be trivial to conclude that the creative minds were just lateral thinkers, just prone to break conventions and presuppositions of linear thinking. They were blessed with the skills of linear thinking but equally blessed with flexibility. Based on the evidences in front of them, they could freely fabricate new and alternate worldviews. Hence it is more natural to believe that it is interplay between the linear and lateral thinking that generates creative options. Great innovations have invariably redefined the basic assumptions and frameworks of human thinking announcing a paradigm shift in the world-view. However, it sounds simplistic to conclude that a trivial altering of the frameworks and assumptions of thought would invariably lead to creative breakthroughs. There is no automatism in this regard. However, a flexible mind would be in a position to easily shift the paradigms and frameworks of thinking when warranted. The Herculean effort of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei to replace Aristotelian geocentric world-view with a heliocentric one is well-known. At the same time, there are evidences that even the most creative minds were at times rigid and conservative, when it meant a paradigm shift. Example is Albert Einstein, who successfully replaced Newtonian concept of absolute space and time by his path-breaking concept of relativistic space-time continuum. However, the same Einstein was not flexible enough to accept the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics by the Copenhagen School under the leadership of Niels Bohr. Einstein is said to have quipped: “God does not play dice!” He vehemently opposed the probabilistic Quantum Mechanics by introducing his notorious theory of “Hidden Variables”, without much success. Even creative minds require constant replenishment in flexibility. And lateral thinking can aid it.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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