Edward de Bono – the champion of lateral thinking. Every so often, when I am giving my brain a quick routine service, I ask myself how my skills of lateral thinking are working. I am cheating today by writing about it; it will force me to look at the issues.
De Bono once impressed me with a mental experiment. He said, imagine that you are drawing a squiggly circle on paper. Then go over it, again and again. With each drawing, following the line gets easier and easier. And that’s because the furrow made by your pencil gets deeper and deeper – making a convenient channel.
Our neurons work in much the same way. They learn the pattern of our thinking, and the more we follow the same path, the easier it becomes. And that’s very useful because it enables us to do our thinking quickly and easily by going the way we did before. But it does have a disadvantage: it makes it less and less likely that we get out of the furrow, and so less and less likely that we do original thinking.
De Bono fully accepted the value of ordinary thinking; it was necessary for most of the time. But he advocated lateral thinking as an important skill for all of us to use on a regular basis. Here are some of the techniques that I have found useful. You will see that they are designed to force the mind out of routine thinking.
Never take the first conclusion. When we face, say, a knotty practical problem we may well arrive at the solution. But put that solution on one side, and think of a second answer – and a third. Now you can choose the best of the solutions. Often you will find that it was not the first one you reached.
There is power in the use of absurdity. Suppose that you are thinking about parenthood. ‘Mothers love their children’ comes to mind. That’s straight thinking but it leads to nothing new. The lateral thinker might choose ‘mothers hate their children’ instead. Now all sorts of new ideas can come into mind: do they hate their children?, is it permanent or temporary?, what can trigger the feeling? – and so on. Now we are exploring some interesting properties of motherhood. The statement ‘God is a figment of the imagination’ might seem an odd place to start. But then it could occur to you that our concept of God is largely a figment of our imagination – so we’re already learning something new – about what we don’t know.
When I was teaching my young granddaughter and her best friend how to debate, we would settle on a subject first; for example: ‘The throwaway society is a good thing’, and they would prepare it for the next week. But they wouldn’t know whether they were going to be for or against – that would be decided by a toss before the debate started. So they had to prepare both sides. It was a splendid intellectual discipline. We have recently had much debate on the subject of climate change. I wonder how many of us took time to devise the arguments we might use to oppose the position we favour. I suggest that it was those who did this who thought much more deeply about the question.
The blank mind is often a problem. You want to choose a birthday present for a special person. Your mind is completely blank. I need to write a post for this blog. My mind is completely blank. So I will pick up a book, virtually any book, open it on any page and touch a random word. Surprisingly often that word, or something associated with that word, will trigger an idea. I tried that an hour ago. My pencil hit the word ‘ordinary’. Hopeless, I thought – but I played around with it: ‘extraordinary, everyday, not ordinary’ and then it clicked: ‘not ordinary thinking’ led me straight into ‘lateral thinking’. So that’s why you are getting this post!
So come and contribute your ideas and tips about thinking. That way we will all raise our game.